Copyright 2015 by Anna Scott Graham
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Names and characters, incidents and places are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For my husband. And for my Father.
Inside the sunroom Eric cuddled his daughter so she could see the garden, not that he thought Jane could actually make out the patio furniture or the fountain and bird bath. Eric and Lynne often wondered how keen was their daughter’s vision; it was now apparent that she knew them, and her Auntie Renee and Uncle Sam, her smiles wide. At nearly eight weeks of age, Jane had entered a most precious state of babyhood, or so those four adults thought. She was still relatively tiny, but now animated, and was learning more about the world every day.
In mid-May, the Snyder homestead was again undergoing change as three acres of the thicket were being cleared, mostly to the left of Eric’s studio. Jane seemed to understand that small building’s importance in her parents’ lives; when either took her inside, Jane’s babblings ceased, her blue eyes open wide. Eric had painted mother and daughter in the studio as well as in the sunroom. He’d also painted them seated on the patio, but wouldn’t do that again until bramble had been removed. Eric sighed, kissing the top of his daughter’s head. He probably wouldn’t again paint their portraits outside until summer was in full swing, for as soon as the thicket was cleared, construction would begin, and while Jane was usually good humored, she wasn’t fond of overwhelming noise. Fortunately she seemed impervious when asleep, napping without issue while bulldozers uprooted trees and shrubs. But if Eric stepped through the French doors, Jane would begin to whimper, then whine, then break into a full-blown tantrum. Better to paint her portrait inside the house, plenty of time to capture her outdoors in the months to come.
After Jane’s baptism, time seemed to fly for the Snyders, and Eric wore a sly grin as he set Jane over his shoulder, then turned to face the living room. Lynne was in the kitchen making an apple pie, but their roles as husband and wife had returned in full right after their daughter was christened. Then the gardeners arrived to begin the exterior alterations and now life as a father and husband left Eric with little time to consider much else. He still painted, of course, but it was balanced by a new dimension of commitment to his wife and child that Eric had never considered. Perhaps it had been impossible to imagine the changes one small baby would bring, and not only to her parents. Eric had seen the desire upon Renee’s face, motherhood no longer a faraway dream. Eric wasn’t certain how much Fran Canfield’s pregnancy had to do with it, but he hadn’t missed how Renee doted upon her godchild, although dote wasn’t exactly the correct term. A new facet of Renee Ahern had been unearthed in the last two months and even Samuel had remarked upon it, strictly in the context of Fran’s coming twins. But Eric wasn’t fooled by that man’s attempts to diminish what Jane had inspired. Even Sam was contemplating the idea of fatherhood.
Perhaps not to an infant, then Eric smiled as Lynne stepped through the kitchen doorway, heading toward him. Jane was still babbling, but Lynne looked in need of mother-daughter time, and Eric nodded, hoisting their child from over his shoulder and handing her to Lynne. In the last several weeks he had learned when a mother needed to breastfeed, and not always was it when Jane screamed from hunger.
That baby seemed in tune with her mother, for as soon as she went into Lynne’s grasp, Jane began to cry, but not the sound when she was wet or lonely. Eric had discerned the various tones of Jane’s irritation, three distinct tenors that noted hunger, fear, and discomfort. Discomfort usually meant a soggy bottom, although a few times Jane has suffered from an upset tummy or gas. If she woke from a nap, she beckoned for companionship, and was easily soothed. But when her appetite arose, she could be downright vociferous, although rare were the moments she was made to wait. At night, she was still sleeping in the bassinette in the master bedroom, however during the day she napped in her crib. When a mother and father needed privacy, Jane was either placed in her crib if the sun was shining, or was laid in her bassinette, then wheeled just outside their bedroom. Lovemaking had returned to Eric and Lynne with a deeper intensity, but was now expressed in more muted voices. Often they found it better to make love in the afternoons while Jane slept in the nursery. However, since the gardeners’ arrival, those excursions had been eliminated.
Yet, a baby ate whenever she was hungry, even if her parents were trying to display ardent affections. As Lynne took the crowing infant into the living room, Jane noted again it was mealtime, even if she hadn’t realized it until Lynne held her. Eric found that relationship the most striking and beautiful of all the changes that had occurred. In a concealed corner, Lynne began to feed their daughter, unbothered to the workers just beyond the patio. Eric sat beside them, stroking Jane’s curls, gazing at his wife, inhaling this new chapter of their lives. They were parents after so many years of waiting. And with Laurie’s latest news about Seth’s continuing recovery, perhaps Eric would never have to be separated from his family again.
Eric tried to keep that in perspective; Seth had been receiving electro-shock therapy since right after Jane was born. During those weeks he had grown calmer and slightly more extroverted; Seth wasn’t attempting any return to sculpting, but no longer was he suicidal. Laurie’s last letter denoted a hesitant expectation that if Seth continued to proceed in this manner, perhaps he might be moved closer to home. Eric wasn’t certain who had requested that, probably Seth’s mother. The Abrams were a tightly knit bunch, Eric had learned, and it was distressing on Wilma Gordon to have her only son so far away.
But those thoughts only lasted until Jane burped; Eric stared at his daughter, sitting on Lynne’s lap, her smile a beacon. Eric laughed, which made Jane chortle, although she sounded punch-drunk. “You’re a little piglet,” he said, tickling her chin.
“And thank goodness for that.” Lynne put Jane to her other breast. Within seconds the baby was quiet and Lynne sighed. “I never realized all the human body could manage. I’d just gotten the pie in the oven, then before I could set the timer my milk came in. Thank goodness she’s so accommodating.”
Eric chuckled. “Did you set the timer or should I check the pie?”
“I did, but you can check it. And would you get me some juice?”
Eric stood from the sofa. “Apple or….”
“Orange. And a glass of water too.”
He nodded, then headed to the kitchen. It was beneficial that Lynne had been a nurse, for sometimes Eric forgot those requirements. Jane never went hungry, but then Lynne was always eating or drinking something. Or making pie; she had returned to that activity in full, and Eric wondered what sort of homemaker had been lurking inside his wife, aching to be released. Her days as his bohemian spouse seemed to have ended with Jane’s birth, but perhaps another soul had blossomed, or two of them. Eric and Lynne would be baptized in July, although Stanford and Laurie weren’t planning on venturing west for that occasion. It might only be Sam and Renee in attendance that Sunday, for Fran was still unwell, although the last time Eric had asked, the babies seemed to be all right. As Eric peeked at the pie, then retrieved beverages for his wife, he inhaled more than apples and cinnamon. Their home was no longer the dwelling of merely two people. Jane had made this house a cozy nest, in addition to those whom Eric considered their closest relations.
When he returned to the living room, Lynne’s eyes were shut. He put the glasses on the coffee table and she nodded, but didn’t open her eyes. He sat beside her and she reached for his hand, her smile wide, even if she looked ready to nap. But he knew sleep wasn’t her hope. She was praying and he remained quiet, taking a moment to give thanks for a multitude of blessings. His wife and daughter were two, this spacious but comfortable house another, but lately Eric had found a different topic edging those gifts and he chuckled inwardly, odd to think of faith as something for which to be grateful. According to Pastor Jagucki, faith was a gift, not something humans conjured on their own. The more Eric studied Luther’s Small Catechism, the more comfortable he felt with having chosen St. Matthew’s, then he gently tutted himself; God had led Eric to visit Pastor Jagucki that brisk March morning, just two days before Jane was born. The daffodils had indeed bloomed, just recently in fact, and Marek Jagucki had smiled at Eric last Sunday after church, noting that Mrs. Harmon had finally stopped harassing him. Strange that those early spring flowers had waited until May to emerge, but now they stood tall alongside fading tulips, their bright orange centers noting the unpredictability of God’s handiwork, how the pastor had explained it to both Eric and Mrs. Harmon.
Eric had heard that story as he stood at the bottom of the steps while Lynne nursed Jane in the ladies’ room inside church. They had been the last to leave, but the pastor hadn’t seemed in a hurry to rush them off. Eric and the pastor also spoke about art; Marek Jagucki hoped that the painter would host an exhibit closer to home, for he hadn’t seen any canvases other than the few which graced the Snyders’ residence. Most of those were of Lynne and Jane, although Marek had been greatly moved by the orchard in spring, stating it reminded him of his youth in Poland. Eric hadn’t heard more than wistfulness in the pastor’s voice, but since meeting him, Eric also found that Marek Jagucki possessed a great capacity for subtly. If Father Markham hadn’t mentioned that Pastor Jagucki’s entire family had been lost during World War II, Eric would have no inkling of that tragedy.
Perhaps Eric would arrange an impromptu exhibit, although not as Stanford had been hinting. Now with Jane’s safe arrival and Seth’s apparent improvement, Eric didn’t feel he would be going anywhere, and why not show this town the talent he possessed. He didn’t think about the gossipy nurses who had spoken behind Lynne’s back during his previous absences, nor did he considered wealthy art collectors; this would be a small but wide-ranging exhibit of locally owned paintings, from those hanging in the Aherns’ living room to the ones Fran and Louie Canfield possessed, and any Aherns and Nolans who would willingly part with their family portraits for a short time. Then there was the painting of Lynne and Renee in their nursing uniforms, which was stored upstairs, along with hordes of canvases Eric had created over the last year. Would he display any of the nudes? Perhaps, depending on what Lynne thought. He gripped her hand, then smiled. She was willing to show most of them, but that was assuming the audience would be well-heeled art lovers in New York City. What might she think if locals saw her so unabashedly depicted?
Where could such an exhibit be held, Eric mused, spying his sleeping daughter and nearly unconscious wife beside him. Eric released Lynne’s hand, then tenderly lifted Jane from her mother’s arms. He burped the baby, but Jane wasn’t stirred from her slumber, and Lynne looked very settled on the couch. Eric carried Jane to her crib, covering her with a light blanket. Then he returned downstairs, finding Lynne had reclined along the length of the sofa. He smiled, softly stroking long hair from her face. He left the juice and water on the coffee table, but headed into the kitchen, finding just minutes left on the timer. He checked the pie, which seemed finished, and set it on the stove to cool. Then he picked up the timer, taking it to the far corner of the kitchen, adjusting the dial until it hummed in his hand. While Lynne was fully recovered from Jane’s birth, Dr. Salters had admonished the new mother to take advantage of Jane’s naptimes for her own rest. Eric had plenty to keep him busy while the women in his life caught forty winks.
An hour later, Lynne found her husband upstairs cataloging paintings. “Eric,” she whispered. “What are you doing?”
He looked up, then motioned toward the nursery. “Is she still asleep?”
Lynne nodded, coming to his side. “What’s going on? Did Stanford call while I was napping?”
Eric shook his head. “Nope, but I need to call him. I think I’m gonna have a show soon.”
“Mmmhmm, right here in town. Just trying to decide which paintings to include.”
Lynne stood back. “You’re gonna have an exhibit here?”
“Well, Pastor said he wished I’d have a showing closer to home. Then I realized the only pictures he’s seen are the orchard and the few of you and Jane that aren’t, well….” Eric laughed quietly. “Thought I’d ask Sam and Renee about their three and maybe some of the Ahern and Nolan family portraits and maybe a few of the….”
Eric paused, then grinned at his wife. “Of the nudes, since you seemed unbothered if I sold most of them.”
Lynne shivered, then noted her husband’s teasing smile. “The nudes, huh? And which nudes were you considering?”
“Oh, the ones you thought eventually would make their way east. And any others that you felt like sharing with John Q. Public.”
For a second, Lynne wondered if Eric was being serious. Then as he stared at a large vertical canvas, she had no doubt to his intentions. The painting was of her, done in the studio. Lynne’s back was to the viewer, her hair much longer than it had been at the time, concealing her buttocks. Yet she wore not a stitch, peering out at the greenery as if searching for…. She knew what Eric had depicted, but other than the Aherns, no one else would guess what the model was looking for through the studio’s glass panes. Perhaps she was admiring the garden or daydreaming or…. But while Lynne’s husband had been just yards away as she held that pose, it was as if she was waiting for him to return. Lynne approached the canvas, lightly running her fingers along that lengthy mane. Her hair was to her shoulders now and she would probably keep it that length. Soon enough Jane would be reaching for anything to grasp and a mother’s tresses would be the first prize. But just over a year ago, Lynne had been a different woman, although in that painting, she was probably pregnant. How much had she changed in the last twelve or thirteen months?
“Will you show my favorite?” she asked, still examining herself gazing out from the studio’s back wall.
“If you want. I’ll show any and all paintings that you think are appropriate.”
She faced him. “Will you sell them?”
Eric smiled. “Not here, or Stanford would have my head. This’ll simply be a small exhibit, certainly not a retrospective, but with the Aherns’ paintings and the few old ones I’ve kept, anyone will be able to see a progression.”
Lynne nodded, then chuckled. “Like I said after the baptism, whatever you feel is appropriate to sell, then show those pieces. It’s too bad the ones in Minneapolis can’t be included. That would really shock some folks.”
Eric put his arm around her. “I’ve thought about it, but Seth’s doing so well and….”
“And those paintings belong there. But can you imagine what the locals would think?”
“They’d think, well, I have no idea. I think Pastor would like them though.”
“He would. That might be reason enough, but best they stay right where they are.”
Lynne snuggled against her husband. She didn’t care if townspeople saw her nude, although she might blush the next time she spoke to Pastor Jagucki. Yet, his European sensibilities would probably preclude any awkwardness. But what would he think of the two abstract paintings in Minnesota? Maybe once Seth was well and had been discharged from Caffey-Miller, those paintings could be brought back here for a brief time. Lynne didn’t want them permanently, just as she didn’t need these pictures, except the one of her seated on the stool. Eric had propped that one on an easel and Lynne stepped to where it waited. Her eyes were closed, her arms stretched as far as she could reach. And her smile? It was merely a hint to the woman she was now; indeed she had been pregnant, perhaps just at that very moment. Jane had existed inside Lynne, although they didn’t know it was the cheerful sprite that now cried across the hall. Lynne smiled, although her milk didn’t come in. That whimper was simply to alert parents that someone needed them, and Eric was out the door before Lynne could speak. Then he returned with a placid infant who sported faint tears on her plump cheeks. Lynne wiped away the remnants, then again peered at herself from over a year ago. “Show these Eric, let others know the existence of miracles, the goodness of God.” Lynne smiled at her husband, then took their baby from his arms. She kissed Jane, then gently nuzzled against the baby’s soft face. “These shouldn’t be hidden away, not all the time. Maybe Pastor Jagucki would let you exhibit them in the social room if you can’t find another place in town.”
Eric’s chuckle was slow in coming, then it exploded in the small space. For a moment Jane whimpered, then she smiled at her father’s laughter. Lynne laughed too, wondering what their neighbors would say, and just how serious was the Lutheran pastor about seeing Eric’s work. As Eric headed downstairs, saying he had calls to make, Lynne expected they would know soon enough one way or the other.
Renee and Sam stared at a wide expanse, which stretched from the studio far into the Snyders’ property. Those three acres loomed much larger than the couple had expected, although Eric seemed to have that space fully appropriated; to the right of the studio would be his new storage facility, which according to Eric would be completed before the Fourth of July. But one outbuilding wouldn’t begin to fill the area that remained. “Are you sure you didn’t clear too much space?” Renee asked, standing beside her husband. She peered at the broken sod, so much light spilling into the garden, or what would be garden, one of these days.
Eric chuckled, then flanked Renee, motioning to the immediate ground. “I want grass here, so Jane has plenty of space to run. That tree at the edge is gonna be a treehouse. The swing set will go here and a sandbox there and….”
“And the boysenberry vines?” Sam asked. “Where’re they gonna go?”
Now Eric laughed. “Those, my friend, will skirt around the perimeter out of the reach of little ones. In part so we get berries from them, and so they don’t get scratched up playing out here.” Eric stepped several feet into the lumpy sod. “It’s gonna be a work in progress, but in two or three years, just when Jane’s ready, you’ll never know all this was once scrub.”
Sam chuckled, joining where Eric stood. “All right, just as long as you get the berry vines in first.”
“That’ll be right after the storage building’s done. We’ve got what looks to be a pretty healthy crop for this year, maybe it was good to prune those.” Eric pointed to the mass of vines along the back of the sunroom. “But yeah, get the outbuilding done, then more plants, and some of this put into lawn.” He stomped on a few large dirt clods. “I don’t want it to be a huge mud hole come autumn.”
Renee faced the house, wishing she had stayed inside, where Lynne fed the baby. Renee didn’t care what the Snyders did to the backyard, well, she hoped for more berries of course. But it would be two years before Jane was solidly on her feet and as far as Renee knew, Lynne didn’t want to try for another child until at least next spring. Lynne had gotten fitted for a diaphragm, for the couple had tired of condoms, and an IUD seemed invasive. The women talked about contraception as if Renee wasn’t Catholic, and she wished she could have as easily spoken with Frannie about such issues. Renee was still troubled when thinking about Sam’s sister, but she wasn’t sure how much Fran’s confinement had stirred her now overwhelming desire to adopt. Renee had a hard time not nagging Sam about it, although every time they visited the Snyders, Sam seemed a little closer to at least investigating the possibility.
“Renee, c’mere a minute.” Sam held his arm out to her. “Tell us what you think about how far the grass should go.”
She turned back to the men, shrugging her shoulders. “Like I have any idea about that. I’m going inside. You guys decide that sorta thing.”
Promptly she headed to the house, finding Lynne no longer in the living room. But Renee could hear her softly singing to Jane from what sounded like in the nursery. The Aherns had arrived just as Jane started crying for lunch and Renee hadn’t gotten a chance to hold her. Now Lynne was putting the baby down for a nap and Renee wanted to slug Samuel for insisting she inspect the backyard. What did she care about the exterior? Far more important things were inside the Snyders’ home.
Renee didn’t speak, but Lynne’s gentle voice tugged on Renee’s heart. Renee didn’t want to adopt an infant, for that would be too much for Sam to cope with. But perhaps a small child, maybe two or three years old, probably three so neither would have to deal with potty training. A three or four-year-old who needed parents and Renee brushed away tears, hearing Lynne’s footsteps approach. Renee smiled, blinking away the last wetness, then she met Lynne at the bottom of the stairs. “She fall asleep?” Renee asked.
Lynne nodded. “Went out before she got to the second breast. She’s having a growth spurt I think, because she ate like a pig this morning, then needed more, but actually there wasn’t much to give her. Good thing she fell asleep. Time for me to replenish.”
Renee chuckled, having heard the same thing many times over from her and Sam’s sisters. Then Renee thought of Frannie and had to hide her scowl. “Well, let’s get you fed. Those husbands of ours are lost to the wonders of landscaping.”
“Sorry you got roped into going out there,” Lynne said as they entered the kitchen. “I’d have preferred a chat, but Eric wanted to show off what he wants to do.”
Lynne sat as Renee pulled cold cuts and cheese from the fridge. “Well, I realize that, but that’s man stuff. Babies are far more important in my opinion.”
Renee shivered as she spoke, then she gripped the counter, saying a quick prayer. Why was Frannie having yet another child, two children? For what possible reason, then Renee shook her head. She got Lynne a glass of water, then brought the sandwich fixings to the table. “Oh, forgot the bread.” She turned back, grabbing the loaf, when Lynne reached for Renee’s shoulder.
The women shared knowing gazes. Then Lynne led Renee to the closest chair, pulling hers in front. Lynne grasped Renee’s trembling hands, then wiped away tears that Renee couldn’t hide. “Do you wanna talk about it?”
Renee shook her head. Fran was still quite ill and on days when not working with vets, Sam drove to the Canfields to help with Helene and Johnny. That little boy would be in kindergarten in the fall, but for now the two at home were more than Fran could care for. Once school was out, she would have plenty of assistance, but that was still a few weeks away. Renee didn’t begrudge the time Sam was gone, but she couldn’t separate her anger from the reason for his absences, which sometimes coincided with her days off. Renee could have accompanied her husband, but it was just too hard to be around Frannie, Helene, and Johnny. Never had Renee felt any of her or Sam’s youngest relatives were unapproachable, and she certainly didn’t feel that way about Jane. Renee gripped Lynne’s hands, then nodded. But she didn’t speak, as if all of her feelings were understood by a woman who for many years had known the full extent of Renee’s heartache.
“Have you talked any more about adoption?” Lynne’s tone was soft.
Renee shook her head. “He doesn’t wanna hear it, although every time we leave here, he brings it up. Then when I try to say something, he shuts down. That’s the worst part, I mean….” Then Renee sighed. That wasn’t the worst. The worst was thinking about Frannie, two more babies, and no obvious purpose to that blessing. It was a blessing, Renee could admit to herself, sort of like how Eric turned into a hawk, or used to turn into one. He hadn’t altered since last November and now Seth was better and…. “Lynne, I need to get something off my chest, but you have to promise you won’t hate me afterwards.”
Lynne smiled, caressing Renee’s damp cheek. “Honey, I love you. You can tell me anything.”
Renee wasn’t sure about Lynne’s earnest tone, but if she didn’t speak about this, it would drive her crazy. “It’s about Fran and the twins. I just….”
Heavy footsteps halted Renee’s next words. “Hey, time for lunch yet, or is someone else still eating?” Eric spoke quietly, but enthusiastically. Then he paused. “Uh, should we give you a minute?”
Renee stood, taking a deep breath, wiping the last of her tears. “Nope, otherwise you’ll starve. I was just making Lynne some lunch so someone else has food for later.”
Sam had entered the kitchen right after Eric, but Renee kept her gaze from her husband. The last thing she wanted was for Sam to know her heart, at least when it came to Frannie. Yet he seemed unwilling to listen to her about other issues, but Renee brushed that aside. “So, what’ll it be, ham or turkey or….”
“You and Lynne make yourselves comfortable on the patio,” Eric said. “Let us guys make lunch.”
Renee nodded, stepping around Sam, not looking to see if Lynne was on her heels. Renee quickly walked through the living room, went out via the French doors, and had plopped into a patio chair before anything else could be noted.
On the drive home, the Aherns said nothing to each other, but many thoughts ran through their minds. Renee continued to berate herself for wishing Fran and Louie weren’t having more children and feeling guilty that she had nearly shared that sentiment with Lynne. Sam wondered why his wife was so moody; she’d just had her period, but maybe that had again reminded her of…. He nearly shrugged, but stopped himself, not wishing to stir up anything. Then he sighed. Ignoring whatever was bugging her wouldn’t alleviate the situation. “Renee, are you okay?”
For a few seconds she didn’t respond, staring out her window. Then she took a deep breath, making Sam shiver. Usually after they left the Snyders, he couldn’t help but think about what a child might bring to his and Renee’s lives. Not a baby and Renee knew that, but was that the problem? Did she actually want them to adopt….
Sam had considered a slightly older child, well, much older than little Jane, who he had only seen in passing that day. After a stilted lunch was shared on the patio, Renee made their goodbyes, although Sam had wanted to stay longer, but that was probably because once he was alone with Renee this awkwardness would again emerge. Jane had slept all through the meal, which gave Lynne time to eat, and she had, two sandwiches in addition to glasses of milk, water, and juice. Eric mentioned that Jane was growing like a weed, but Sam had barely gotten a peek at her, although she’d flashed those blue eyes his way. At ten weeks old she still had blue eyes. Maybe, like everybody had been telling him, she was going to keep those blue peepers, but Sam wouldn’t be surprised if they did turn brown after time.
Since Jane’s birth, time had been a funny notion for Sam, for within those two and a half months, he had undergone a vast healing, yet it was hedged by Frannie’s odd news and Renee’s strange irritability. Time either sped far too fast, like when he was at the Snyders, or even at work. He acknowledged that Seth’s recuperation was a part of that, as if Seth was one of the vets Sam counseled. But when alone with Renee, time had started to drag, which had never been the case around his wife except for right after Sam came home from Korea. Until Renee had slapped him, her visits had felt like years instead of the brief minutes they had actually encompassed, but then once she let him have it, suddenly they were back to who they had been, or mostly who they had been, before he went to basic training. He’d still had several months of recovery ahead of him, but a wall had been torn down, probably the way Seth felt now that electro-shock therapy had brought him some peace. Laurie sent Sam updates when there was a new development, and the latest news had made Sam’s heart leap; Seth’s doctor had decided to end the electric shock treatments. Dr. Tasker felt Seth had made enough headway that traditional therapies could be resumed. Not that Seth hadn’t been in counseling sessions for the last two months, but until he had been freed from that paralyzing black cloud, no amount of words or even Eric’s amazing paintings could lift that suffocating malaise.
Sam felt it there in the car as Renee kept taking awkward breaths, not saying a word. But what could he offer other than he prayed for them to make the right choice. And for now, Sam wasn’t convinced that investigating adoption was the best option. Then he shook his head. He wasn’t even ready to get past looking into it while if Renee had her way, they’d drive to the nearest orphanage and bring home….
Sam blinked, then nearly pulled over. Fortunately the light turned yellow and he stopped. Jane was Eric and Lynne’s treasure, even if she had blue eyes. Sam knew his limitations and while he adored his latest godchild, an infant as placid as Jane Renee would be too much for him, and that was if Renee did cut back on work. She’d told him that, the last time they drove away from the Snyders; she would only work part time, or less, whatever their budget allowed. They could sell not only the canvas of the three hawks, but the other landscape, just keeping the blue barn. With the profits, she wouldn’t need to work more than twenty hours a week, occasionally picking up an extra shift if absolutely necessary. Sam wouldn’t shoulder parenthood all on his own, and it certainly wouldn’t involve bottles, diapers, and potty training. Neither Ahern was keen on those aspects.
When Sam went to the Canfields, his biggest task was keeping Helene and Johnny quiet so Fran could rest. Sally and the other kids only had two more weeks of school, then Sam wouldn’t need to stop in, although he still would to make sure Fran was all right. And depending on how she felt during summer, Sam would drive over there to give Sally, Will, and Jaime a break. Those three eldest deserved some play time, they weren’t responsible for running the household. That was Fran’s job, but until she was well again…. Then Sam blanched. Fran was forty-five and assuming she was like their mother Marjorie, she might not be done having kids for another four or five years. Marjorie Ahern had delivered Sam’s youngest sister Joan just days shy of her forty-eighth birthday. At the time, Sam hadn’t given it much thought, other than yes, his mom was pregnant again. But as an adult, it made Sam slightly blush to realize that his parents had been held to the same tenant that now caused Fran so much anguish. Not that she didn’t want the babies; Sam knew she did, but how many offspring were she and Louie supposed to have?
Marjorie Ahern had never complained, but then Sam hadn’t been listening for those kinds of sentiments. But times were changing, not all of Sam’s siblings had hordes of kids. Joan, for instance, had three daughters, but that wasn’t because Joanie had a hard time. She and her husband Russell seemed to have more modern views about contraception, but Joanie was the youngest Ahern, sixteen years younger than Frannie. Sam’s mother had been like Frannie, an older mom, but once she started having kids, she didn’t stop until nature stepped in. If Sam and Renee did adopt, older children would be better, for Sam was already thirty-five, Renee a year his junior. If he did become a father, and that was still a big if, he didn’t want to be an older dad.
The light turned green and Sam accelerated, not thinking about whatever Renee wanted to say, but felt unable to broach. He considered his siblings, all eight of them, and that Joan had the fewest kids. Well, Sam smirked to himself, he didn’t have any, neither did his brother Ted, who was a priest. But of those who could procreate, Joanie had just her girls. Russell didn’t seem to need a son and what if one of those first two girls had been a boy? Would there have even been a third? Sam would never ask Joan or Russell, that was their private business. But Joan Ahern McCampbell wasn’t like her oldest sister, who seemed to get pregnant at the drop of a hat. Why was it so easy, perhaps too easy, for Fran and Louie, while others never experienced that joy?
Sam pondered that, then found himself pulling into his driveway. He thanked God for getting them home safely, for Sam had been so lost in thought he’d driven on auto-pilot. Then he killed the engine, gazing at his wife. Renee’s splotchy face was streaked with tears. Guilt overwhelmed Sam and he reached over the gear box, trying to embrace her. But Renee pulled away, getting out of the car, heading for their front door.
Within a minute, Sam was inside their house, hearing her blowing her nose from their bedroom. He waited until she was done, then he walked in that direction as residual sniffles continued. All that time she’d been crying and he hadn’t noticed; that had never happened before. Then he wanted to kick himself; she truly wanted to be a mother. He wanted to be a father; he couldn’t deny it, so why was he being so reticent? Of what was Sam so afraid?
“Renee, honey, I’m….” He stopped speaking, finding her curled into a ball in the middle of their bed. Immediately he slipped off his shoes, then lay beside her, stroking her long hair. She hadn’t cut it in a while and it spread across the mattress like fire. Then Sam shook his head. What she wanted wasn’t bad, he was just being a boorish jerk like she’d claimed when she gave him the what-for about the New Yorkers. Renee had laid into Sam about Laurie and Stanford, and he probably deserved another helping. “Renee, honey, I love you. Please, can we talk about this?”
She struggled to free herself from his embrace and Sam shivered, not wanting to let her go. “Renee, I’m sorry baby, I don’t wanna fight, oh Renee….”
She had succeeded in escaping from his grasp, but not because Sam had willingly relinquished her. Now she sat on her side of their bed, staring out the window. Sam sat up, but didn’t go to her side. “Renee, please forgive me. I’m sorry I didn’t see you were upset, I was thinking about….” He bit his tongue. No way could he tell her, although maybe that was their problem. Neither was being honest with the other. “Renee, honey, can you look at me?”
She shook her head, gripping the comforter, turning her knuckles white.
Sam ached to touch her hands, then turn her face his way. Instead he prayed, then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Renee, can I tell you what I was thinking about in the car?”
She barely nodded.
Sam sighed. “I was thinking about how Joan and Russell just have their girls. I was wondering if they’d had a boy first, or second even, if they would’ve had Megan. That’s what I was wondering. That Frannie’s gonna have the twins and with her luck she’ll be pregnant again after that and….”
“She shouldn’t even have the twins.”
Sam blinked. Renee’s voice hadn’t been more than a whisper, but the strength of her conviction couldn’t be missed. “What’d you say?”
“You heard me Sam. I won’t repeat it.”
A cold sweat poured over Sam, not for her words, but that instantly he agreed with her. In a perfect world, Frannie shouldn’t have those babies, for she already had four sons and three daughters, and why in God’s name was she pregnant again? Then Sam’s rational mind lost ground, thinking of how beautiful Helene was, and of the painting Eric had made of Fran, Sally, and that adorable toddler when Helene wasn’t any bigger than Jane Renee. If God’s plan was for the Canfields to have another baby, two of them even, who was Sam to argue?
And if they had more…. Sam wouldn’t consider that thought, or the plausible excuses why it wasn’t a good idea. Who was he to assume anything when he’d cared for Eric in the most inexplicable moment, or held that man’s daughter just an hour after she was born? Who knew why God did any of the things he did, from new babies to war to…. Sam felt a rising annoyance, which turned into prickly anger. Only once before had he been this furious, when speaking with Lynne about…. Yet, she hadn’t been lying, Eric did turn into a hawk, or he used to. Then Sam rolled his eyes. Most likely Eric wasn’t done transforming, just like Frannie would probably get pregnant again. But those situations weren’t bad, not in the grand scheme. Eric’s long absence had allowed for Jane’s conception, not to mention healing Eric’s foot. And while it seemed excessive for Fran and Louie to have more children, who knew what might happen to them? President Kennedy’s older brother had been killed in World War II, his sister dead in a plane crash a few years after the war. There was no telling what the future held and babies were lovely. A lot of work, Sam would admit, but….
Renee stood, then faced him. Now her coloring was ashen, but her eyes were so bright that Sam trembled. “The last thing Fran and Louie need are more kids. She’s sicker than a dog and can’t even care for the ones she’s got. All Sally and Will are doing this summer will be taking care of their mother and siblings and what kind of life is that for a couple of teenagers? It’s not fair Sam, not to Fran and Louie, goodness only knows how they’re gonna make ends meet now. It’s not fair to them or Sally and Will or to….”
“To who Renee?” Sam said, standing from the bed. “To who?”
She tried not to break down, but failed, strangled sobs forced from her throat as were words that made Sam cringe but what he couldn’t ignore. “To us Sam. Here we are, no kids in sight, and she’s gonna have two more, two more! What the hell kinda sense does that make?” Renee stared at the ceiling, nearly raising her fist. Instead she motioned across their bed. “We can barely even make love, let alone a baby. I don’t begrudge Lynne and Eric, they’ve been through the hell we’ve suffered, and thank God he had enough compassion to spare them any more torture. But what about us Sam, what about me? I want your baby, but I can’t have it. I’d be happy to adopt a child, but that doesn’t seem to matter to you, so all right, fine. I won’t bring it up again. I guess I know how you feel, ’cause obviously you don’t wanna talk about it, so I suppose that’s all you need to say on the subject. So fine Sam, we can’t have kids and we won’t have kids. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk. You couldn’t even see how upset I was in the car, I certainly don’t need your pity now.”
Before Sam could move, Renee raced from their room, then he heard the front door slam. But he was so shocked by her statement that even if she’d calmly walked past, he still wouldn’t have been able to move. Sam tried to breathe, allowing all of her words to settle in his chest, which for the first time since she slapped him in the hospital was once again a vast cavernous space aching to be filled.
For two weeks, the Aherns and Snyders didn’t cross paths. Lynne and Eric were either at the mercy of a suddenly unhappy baby, or attending St. Matthew’s with that rather colicky infant who seemed to attract admirers even while screaming at the top of her lungs. Jane’s pediatrician told them perhaps it was something Lynne had introduced to her diet or possibly the weather, which had grown unseasonably warm in early June. Lynne still nursed Jane, which hadn’t become problematic except for when Jane pulled away in tears. Eric’s work suffered as well, for he was stuck in the house, contractors already building the new storage facility. It was no fun painting a whiny baby and her exhausted mother, and Eric gave up trying to capture that twosome. But Lynne didn’t complain to Renee over the phone, for other mothers were in far worse straits and at least Eric was around to spell Lynne when Jane grew irritable.
In those two weeks, Eric had spoken to Pastor Jagucki about a local exhibit, pleasing the cleric, who offered the church’s social room. Eric declined, only because some of the paintings he wanted to show were nudes, and while Marek smiled, both men agreed the rest of the congregation might not be so accommodating. Eric had spoken to the head librarian about using their large conference room and Marek agreed that would be a better location. Eric wanted the brief show to occur after his and Lynne’s baptisms, slated for mid-July. The Snyders had decided to set that date, what with Laurie’s latest news about Seth’s improving health. That information was buffeted against Stanford’s letters concerning his mother, who had been moved to a nursing home on Long Island. Constance’s decline was keeping Michael from traveling west, yet the care facility wasn’t too far from the couple’s Manhattan apartment. Stanford wasn’t sure, however, if perhaps more distance might not be a bad thing. It had worked for Seth and Stanford’s mother wasn’t getting any better. But there was little Eric could have done for Constance and he felt no impending departure was necessary for Seth. The Snyders would be baptized on Sunday, July fifteenth, but the New Yorkers would send their regards via post.
Their personal congratulations would arrive in August when Eric’s local show was slated to open. Stanford had also been apprised of this idea and while he clucked about what was the purpose, there was little he could say to deter Eric from this exhibit. He’d made Eric swear that he wouldn’t sell any paintings, which had made Eric laugh out loud. And after the first night, Stanford was allowed to announce the show to the press. Eric didn’t want a horde of reporters, other than those in town, covering this collection of his work. He wanted the first few nights strictly for those with whom he interacted, which included the friends he and Lynne were making at St. Matthew’s. And lately those people consisted of parents who fully appreciated the clamor proffered by one small baby.
As Eric laid Jane in her crib, he sighed softly to himself. She had howled for most of the morning no matter in what position they held her or if she was set at Lynne’s bosom. Eric tiptoed from the room, closing the door most of the way. He went downstairs, finding Lynne in the kitchen, rolling out pie crust. He smiled at her, then sat at the table. “I wonder how long she’ll sleep.”
“Hours, I hope.” Lynne released a deep breath. “I wanna think this’s just an aberration. She had that growth spurt, maybe this’s the consequence.”
“Maybe.” He brushed crumbs from the table, then stood, stepping into the living room. His Bible waited on the coffee table; Lynne had chosen it after Jane’s baptism, having Eric’s name embossed in the lower left corner. They each had one now, but Eric had inscribed their daughter’s whole name in Lynne’s, right after Jane’s birth. That was their family Bible, he still considered. This one was for another purpose.
Eric read this book nightly, well, most nights up until the last two weeks when Jane had started throwing fits. Marek had written out daily readings which Eric followed not to glean spiritual truths, but to begin a study of Biblical teachings, easing himself into the ritual of Christian worship. Like Lynne, Eric had found comfort in the liturgy at St. Anne’s, and a similar style at St. Matthew’s bound Eric to this form of reverence, cadences and canticles and prayers that spoke for him in his relative infancy of this new journey. He carried the Bible into the kitchen. Lynne was filling the prepared pie tin and he sat at the table, finding her smile on him. “Yes?” he asked.
“Going to do some light reading?” she teased.
“I was just thinking that I’m a lot like our daughter right now.”
“And how’s that?”
“Well, when it comes to faith, I’m just as uncertain, without the howling.”
Lynne reached for the strips of pie dough, then stared at her husband. “Uncertain about what?”
“About a lot of things. It’s funny, I mean, I believe there is a God in three persons, which in itself is pretty unbelievable.” He chuckled, then gently patted the top of the Bible. “But this book’s full of people and events and most of it I’m completely ignorant of. Just like Jane. She knows us, Sam and Renee, I think she’s even getting to know Marek, but the rest of it confounds her, and right now her whole little world is upended.”
Lynne nodded, fashioning the lattice top for the pie. Eric thumbed through the gilt-edged pages, only three bookmarks causing him to pause. One was set in Proverbs, another in 1 John, and the third in Matthew, the current Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel readings. Eric read them with the eye of a pupil, but a more discerning spirit was emerging, or it had been until Jane’s recent change of mood. Now Eric read while yawning, not totally sure of what he’d just digested. But some things were being tucked away, for in the mornings when Eric spent quiet minutes in prayer, the little seeds sown from earlier days felt to be making their way from his heart outwards. His last few paintings were examples of a sort. Lynne and Jane were depicted in the garden among flowers and berry vines, although in the most recent, Jane’s face was a scowl and Lynne’s eyes were tired. But the way Eric had felt while painting them was different. He couldn’t accurately describe it, but he hoped those canvases were set by the August show. Parenthood wasn’t always bliss, but it was his calling, like art and faith.
Yet, Eric didn’t feel his faith had been tested, not in the way Lynne’s had, back in December. He didn’t consider Jane’s recent tirades as a test, well, maybe they were a small trial. Then he smiled as Lynne put the pie in the oven, setting the timer. It was harder on Lynne, when Jane fought nursing. Lynne hadn’t mentioned trying a bottle, although Eric wouldn’t argue. Sometimes Jane fussed so much when trying to feed that Lynne wept from the pain of aching breasts. Then Jane would quiet down and get to work. Lynne hadn’t been eating anything new; Jane just needed to expend this grief and hopefully return to the chirpy infant of before.
Before…. Eric pondered that word as his wife joined him at the table. He grasped her hand, then leaned close, kissing her. Then he chuckled. “You taste like flour.”
“Better than spit-up,” she said, brushing her face along her shoulder.
“Well yeah, there is that.” Eric stroked her cheek. “I was just thinking about….” He sighed, so many ideas, perhaps too many to tell her. Her gentle nod seemed to indicate she understood.
“Eric, I’m gonna lay down. Can you keep an eye on the pie?”
“Sure. If she wakes….”
“If she does, I’ll hear her. I just can’t keep my eyes open any longer.”
Lynne stood, then smiled. This was the less stellar side of parenthood, but still part and parcel of the whole. As she gripped his hand, then released it, Eric nodded, watching her leave the kitchen. Then he stared at his Bible, thinking about the Canfields. Jane was only one baby; how would Fran handle two more? Eric sighed, then prayed for his wife and child to rest, and for another mother to do the same.
By the end of June, Eric and Lynne had started to worry more about Sam and Renee than Fran and Louie; several times Eric had called the Aherns, but no one answered. Eric had stopped in, often catching Sam just as he was leaving either for the VA hospital or for the Canfields, but the men spoke little. Sam and Renee knew the date of Eric and Lynne’s baptisms and Sam assured Eric they would be at St. Matthew’s on that Sunday morning. Lynne wasn’t any more successful in reaching Renee, who seemed to be at the mercy of work. When Jane wasn’t crying, the Snyders discussed their friends’ plights, but more worrisome to the new parents was the distance perceived not between the two couples, but between the Aherns.
While Eric and Lynne chalked it up to the obvious issues, neither knew the depth of discord which had built between that twosome since Renee’s comment at the end of May. For nearly a month, Sam and Renee had treated each other with the same eerie coldness that had befallen them right after Renee told Sam that Eric turned into a hawk. Both realized it, but this time, the basis for their split was something less ethereal, and more damaging. Yet, unlike how forced conversation had emerged two years before, Sam didn’t know how to breach the chasm stirred by Renee’s admission, nor could he bring himself to acknowledge what else he wanted; Sam Ahern wanted a family.
The last four weeks spent in the midst of the Canfield clan had altered Sam’s heart, steeped in the triumphs and small tragedies of seven kids who Sam knew fairly well. Sally and Will were his godchildren, but the rest had notched distinctive chinks in an armor that Sam had erected upon his return from Korea. Between Jane’s birth and the nearly daily interaction with Fran’s offspring, Sam’s heart was back to that wide, unprotected state right after he had married Renee. Yet, when he was around his wife, an impenetrable shield hampered that muscle, causing Sam deep consternation. Never had he felt his marriage was in trouble, except for right when he came home, but that was more of Sam wanting to free Renee from a life of…. He thought about it when driving from the Canfields’, that solid wall building with every mile passed. By the time he reached home, whether Renee was there or not, he felt like a stone plodding into the house, not wishing to cook, clean, or do anything but brood, exactly how he’d felt until the day Renee had slapped his face.
But now Sam didn’t let her get anywhere close to him. Not that they slept in separate beds, but a wide gulf had grown in the center of their double mattress. They hadn’t made love in…. Well, not that they could just make love, but he hadn’t approached her since coming home from the Snyders that day, a day that to Sam had become a demarcation. He hadn’t seen Jane since then, or Lynne, only Eric, and merely for moments, reminding Sam about another baptism, but how in the world would Sam and Renee attend that service together? Would he sit on one side of the church, she on the other? Sam sighed, driving home from Fran’s, hoping that Renee wasn’t waiting for him.
She had started to work double shifts, claiming in the few words they’d exchanged that a staff shortage was the reason. He had nodded, not wishing to hear her speak any more than was necessary, for her words resonated in his head, words she had said she wouldn’t repeat. And she hadn’t, yet, lately Sam wondered if Renee’s words had slipped from him into Fran’s head. Fran had lost weight and was now on bed rest. Her blood pressure was dangerously high and while she had expressed a desire to see Lynne and Eric become members of St. Matthew’s, there was no possible way for her to travel. Louie had privately expressed to Sam that if, God forbid, something happened during the birth, Louie was going to insist that his wife’s health took precedence. It wasn’t in line with Catholic teachings, but they weren’t having these babies in a Catholic hospital.
Sam parked in the driveway, then gazed at the house. The curtains were drawn, which meant Renee wasn’t home. He was glad for that, then he winced as a part of his heart throbbed. He missed her beyond reasonable comprehension; had Lynne and Eric felt this way when he was gone? Their situation had no resolution until Eric returned, but at least that was the answer, yet for Sam, there seemed no manner to reconcile the anger he felt toward his wife, and Sam was angry. How dare she say something so cruel, so…. He shuddered, then got out of the car, heading to the front door.
To his surprise, it wasn’t locked. Sam looked around, but nothing in the yard seemed amiss. He stepped inside, finding their living room as he had left it, Eric’s paintings hanging on the walls. Along with a number of others, those three canvases would be on display in August, and Sam hadn’t thought about that event either, another night he and Renee would have to put on a semblance of…. Sam closed his eyes. “Renee, are you home?”
Speaking her name hurt, not from irritation, only loneliness. Sam missed her desperately, all of her, even that flash of resentment that had built into something insurmountable. She was deeply bitter that his sister could have so many children, but it wasn’t Frannie’s fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was God’s will and…. “Renee, you here?”
Then the silence was punctured by faint weeping. Quickly Sam walked toward their bedroom, a woman’s tears increasing in sound as he approached. When he reached their open door, Renee was shaking and sobbing, had she been like that when he first stepped inside or had his presence caused such an outburst? For the first time in four weeks, Sam’s heart was open to his wife. She still was his wife, but as he noticed the half-filled suitcase on his side of their bed, a greater fear gripped his heart. She hadn’t left him years before when he had willingly told her to, but now…. “Renee, what’s going on?”
Only then did he see another change, her hair no longer spread out over the pillow. When had she cut it, just that day or sometime in the last month, and he hadn’t noticed. He sat on her side of the bed, the closest they had been to each other in…. He stroked her face, wet from tears, but so warm that his hand felt singed. Then he inhaled her sorrow, but it was also the sweetest scent, that of the woman he adored. He still loved her, for which he immediately gave thanks. “Renee, oh honey….”
She looked at him, her eyes solid red blobs in her face. “I’m going home Sam. I have some vacation time to burn and….”
Home, what did she mean? This was her home, this house, their bed, him. Sam was Renee’s home and had been so for over ten years. “Renee, no, that’s unnecessary. Look, we just need to talk and….”
She shook her head, then struggled to sit up. She pulled her knees close to her chest, gripping her legs. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I can’t change how I feel. I know I hurt you and….”
He glanced at the suitcase, filled with underwear and pajamas. Then he gazed at the closet door, which was usually closed at this time of day, but now it was open. Sam’s heart raced and he shut his eyes, wondering if this was how Lynne had felt every time Eric departed. He might not have packed a suitcase, but for all intents he’d left her without any idea of when, or if, he would come home.
Sam grasped his wife and while Renee tried to shake him off, she collapsed into more tears, and Sam wept too. This wasn’t how Eric left Lynne, but how Sam had left Renee, claiming his country needed him. But America wasn’t any better off, nor was Korea, for one man’s assertion. And no matter how Renee felt about Fran’s twins, Sam loved his wife, his imperfect but honest wife. Renee couldn’t hide how she felt, but at least she hadn’t lied to him, not the way he had lied to her.
Maybe it had been easier to dismiss his desire for a family by cloaking that hope in fury. The longer he was angry with Renee, the easier it was to deny what offspring meant. He loved Jane, and missed her too, although Eric had mentioned she was suffering from colic and neither Ahern was missing much from their absences. Only then had Sam learned that he hadn’t been alone in pulling away from the Snyders. Maybe that was why little Jane was so cranky, she missed both of her godparents. Sam missed Renee, and for as violently as she wept, he continued to clutch her, for she felt so right in his arms. Finally she went slack and he eased her into a horizontal position, lying alongside her. She still wept, but his tears had ceased. The wall was gone, replaced by an aching, tender heart, which scared Sam, just a little. Part of his fear stemmed from wondering how they would move past her feelings about the twins. The other part was from….
“I wanna adopt a child Renee. I really want that.” Sam’s voice was barely above a whisper. He cleared his throat, then spoke again. “Honey, I love you. You can’t leave, I love you and….”
“You wanna what?” she said in a choked sob.
He stroked her face, then ran his fingers through her hair. “I wanna be a father Renee. When did you cut your hair?”
She coughed, then stared at him. “I got it cut today. Sam, are you serious, really serious?”
He nodded, grateful that he hadn’t missed her new style. “I am. I love you and I need you and I need….” He closed his eyes, thinking of Helene giggling in his arms just hours ago, or how Johnny had tugged on Sam’s other hand, begging him to read a story. The older children were just as precious, but what would a child raised with this woman do to Sam’s heart? “I need to ask you to forgive me for being so awful over the last month. And for putting this off. I love you Renee. We’re not getting any younger and….”
Now she began to wail, making speech impossible, although Sam thought he heard her say she was sorry. If she’d said she was sorry…. But Sam wouldn’t ask, for in her copious tears, he realized her remorse. It was only right to forgive her as she was forgiving him for being so stubborn. He could be rather obstinate, like how he still refused to let Eric paint his portrait, how he had disregarded what those New Yorkers meant to each other. Sam Ahern possessed a pig-headed streak, but never before had the consequences threatened to separate him from the woman he loved, adored, and needed. He needed Renee and from how she pressed close to him, that sentiment was reciprocated.
As she began to calm, she spoke halting words that Sam didn’t want her to say, but perhaps those thoughts were essential to putting this behind them. She had given plenty of consideration to her previous opinions, even having confessed them to Father Markham. That stunned Sam, for he’d felt no awareness of that man’s knowledge when the couple went to mass together. Renee knew she had no right to judge God’s will, much less think so harshly toward two babies who had been conceived in love. Then Renee grew quiet, but Sam’s heart pounded. Frannie had hinted toward that notion, that no matter what happened, at least her and Louie’s affections hadn’t waned over the years.
Sam kissed Renee’s cheeks, then tenderly clasped his hands around hers. “Honey, that’s all behind us. And I meant what I said. I wanna adopt a…child.” Perhaps an orphaned youngster Johnny’s age who longed for parents as much as Sam ached to share a part of his heart thought dead. It had been injured by Josh’s demise, then killed by Sam’s own injury. Yet, with Christ, anything was possible. Eric had mentioned that in passing and darn that man if he wasn’t correct.
If Eric Snyder could change form, the sky was the limit. And if Sam could forgive his wife…. He gazed at her with new eyes, for she was a broken woman in his arms. Perhaps all this unpleasantness had occurred to prepare them for something new. Sam shivered, then smiled. “I wonder if Stanford is coming out for Eric’s show in August?”
“Why?” Renee asked softly.
“Well, if we’re gonna adopt, we need to sell a painting.” Or two, Sam thought, but at least that of the three hawks. “I’ll bring it up with him if he attends the exhibit.”
“Are you, I mean, are you sure?” Renee’s voice quivered.
“Absolutely. Honey, I love you and while we can’t make our own baby, we can raise a child together, or I’m pretty sure we can.” He smiled, stroking her cheek. “Maybe there’s a redhead out there just waiting for us.”
“Or a blue-eyed….” She stopped, but didn’t break into tears. She traced around Sam’s eyes. “I love you so much and I am so, so….”
“Beautiful Renee. You are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
She gasped, then closed her eyes. Sam leaned toward her, setting a kiss to her lips. Renee’s eyes remained shut, but Sam didn’t halt his actions, which were borne of a relieved heart and a liberated soul. Or a soul mostly calm. A piece of Sam’s heart still remained shrouded, but he ignored that, making love to his wife instead.
As Laurie set empty plates into the sink, Stanford gazed around the kitchen; rare were the times they ate dinner in this room. Agatha was off that day and Laurie had brought home Chinese take-out, which itself was a treat, but Stanford wondered if Laurie had planned this evening for only the two of them. All week he’d been quiet, and while Stanford had wanted to press, his own engagements had taken precedence. They certainly wouldn’t speak about Seth around Agatha, or not to the depth that Stanford felt Laurie was building up to.
Stanford also wondered if this awkwardness was at all due to them not attending the Snyders’ church in a week; Eric’s latest letter assured Stanford that Jane was over her brief bout of colic, seems she had simply missed her Aunt Renee and Uncle Sam. Stanford hadn’t read between the lines, but had been surprised by his slight sense of envy, or maybe it was the knowledge that while he and Laurie were also considered Jane’s uncles, Sam and Renee were her godparents. Lynne sent snapshots of the baby to Laurie, which he had affixed to the refrigerator, much to Agatha’s joy. She thought Jane looked like her mother, but those blue eyes, Agatha asked, from where had Jane inherited them? From Sam Ahern, Laurie had laughed, making Stanford roll his eyes, then again note that twinge of…. It was envy, plain and simple, and it bothered Stanford, who had never felt overt affection toward his sisters’ children. Maybe he was getting soft in his middle age, or maybe it was related to his ailing mother, whom he visited once a week, but it was no different than seeing her at the family home except it was now easier on Stanford. She didn’t seem out of place, surrounded by other infirm elderly people, many with the same issues. Every time Stanford left the nursing home, he ached for the relative peace of the Snyder compound, as he’d begun to think of it since Eric first wrote that Jane had laid a siege on her unsuspecting parents.
Yet now those tantrums were a memory, although Eric wouldn’t be surprised if her temper flared occasionally. But she was calm and happy, awaiting her Uncle Stanford, and hoping for her Uncle Laurie, next month. Laurie was planning on making the journey, with a side trip to Minneapolis on the way back. Laurie had just returned from Minnesota, one reason for his subdued mood. The other was what he had yet to share with Stanford.
Laurie returned to the table, taking the seat beside Stanford. He gripped Laurie’s hand, glad that Agatha was gone, relishing the stillness, or just that without her presence, there was no pretense. For over a decade, since she had been in Stanford’s service, she had never witnessed any affection between the men, but now Stanford ached to be more open. The Snyders and the Aherns knew, and while Stanford wouldn’t be explicit around them, why was he still reticent about even holding Laurie’s hand? This was their apartment, it was 1962. A Catholic ran the country for God’s sake. Then Stanford laughed, squeezing Laurie’s fingers with force.
“What Stan?” Laurie smiled.
“I love you.”
Laurie chuckled, then kissed the back of Stanford’s hand. “I love you too. Nice to have it just us.”
“We never do this around her, I mean….” Stanford sighed, then cracked a smile. “If I held your hand when she was around, would you mind?”
Laurie gaped at Stanford, then shook his head. “Oh well sir, I just don’t know. What will Miss Agatha think?”
“Good God,” Stanford sighed, taking back his hand.
Now Laurie laughed. “Actually Stan, I dare you. Maybe she thinks after all this time we’re still virgins.”
Stanford rolled his eyes. “Jesus Christ. I try to make an honest statement and….”
“There I go, screwing it up.” Laurie clasped his hands, setting them on the table. “No, you’re right. We’re grown men and….”
Stanford glared at him. “I’m not going to talk about this anymore.” He stood, but Laurie reached out for him. Stanford stared at Laurie, who motioned for Stanford to return to his seat.
“I didn’t mean to be flippant.” Laurie sighed. “You’re right. But that’s not what we really need to talk about.”
Stanford shook his head, slowly reaching for Laurie’s folded hands. He grasped them, then nodded. “How was he?”
Laurie took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “He’s better, and I can’t say he’s not, because he smiles and doesn’t talk about killing himself. But something’s not right. Or maybe I’m judging him too harshly. He’s not the man I knew, and maybe he can never be that person again. But whoever he is now isn’t correct either.”
Laurie stood, then leaned against the counter. “He’s forgotten whatever brought him there. Now maybe that’s the result of the shock therapy, which we knew was a possibility. But it’s also a handy excuse. Seth underwent serious mental treatment and has come out of it a different person. But there’s just something that doesn’t add up. Dr. Tasker thinks he’s much improved, and he is, but damnit Stan, it’s like his soul’s missing. Maybe Mom and Aunt Wilma were right. We lost him anyway and it’s all shock therapy’s fault.”
Stanford stood, then approached Laurie. “What are you saying; is he better or not?”
“He’s….” Laurie shrugged. “According to Dr. Tasker, he’s made impressive gains. He’s communicative, no longer harboring suicidal tendencies, he’s even expressed an interest in sculpting.”
“But I talked to him for a long time and he can’t fool me. I remember when Aunt Wilma came home from the hospital with him. Mom says that’s impossible, I was just three, but I remember it Stan, because there was my, my….” Laurie fought tears. “My little brother. Finally I had a brother, I remember feeling that like it was yesterday. And just days ago I sat across from him and he wasn’t that man anymore. Even when he was so depressed and despondent, I knew who he was inside; he was still Seth, even if he was a million miles away. But now he’s not. And what scares me is that he knows it. He can’t lie to me, he never could. He sat across from me, pretending. He was faking it Stan, although to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure he realizes it. He thinks he’s okay because whatever took him to Korea got fried outta his head. That’s the real issue, something made him think he had to go over there, and whatever it was nearly destroyed him when he came back. And now it’s gone, or it’s temporarily forgotten. Or he’s hoping to God they burned it out of him because whatever it was was so painful, no way in hell could he have come home with it and stayed sane.”
Stanford wasn’t struck so much by Laurie’s words, but his plaintive tone. “Well,” Stanford started, but he wasn’t sure how to continue. If Laurie was right, and who was to argue that he wasn’t, all that Caffey-Miller had bought Seth was time. But maybe no facility could have done any better. “What happens now?”
“He’s gonna be there a while, intensive one-on-one therapy, which I think will be utterly useless. They’ll think they’ve cured him, because now he talks to them, interacts with others. Hell, if he does start sculpting, then they’ll really think all’s fine and good. Then they’ll send him home. Aunt Wilma and Mom and everybody else’ll be thrilled, for a while.” Laurie sighed heavily. “Then he’ll do or say something and we’ll be right back where we started. But Stan, this time, this time….”
Laurie caressed Stanford’s face. “Then I just don’t know. Because everyone’s gonna think, well, if the best docs and shock therapy couldn’t cure him, what’s left? Mom and Aunt Wilma will throw a fit, saying all shock treatment did was ruin him, and they’ll lock him up, and he’ll be, he’ll be….” Laurie wiped the tears falling down Stanford’s cheeks. “We’ll be wishing he’d died with Larry and Josh in goddamned Korea, that’s what. Because if he has to be permanently institutionalized….”
Now Laurie wept, but Stanford gripped him, unable to hear anymore. It was easier seeing his mother at the facility, for she was even less of his mom, but now Stanford’s guard fell. Both men cried for those they loved over whom they were helpless, with no apparent cures in sight.
They agreed not to tell the Snyders or Aherns, for at this point, this was solely Laurie’s supposition. He wouldn’t even mention it to his mother and aunt, when all Laurie had were gut feelings. But Stanford trusted those internal reactions, for he knew Laurie better than anyone. Laurie wasn’t religious, but there was something about him that Stanford had been attracted to, beyond his stunning looks and charismatic personality. Laurie possessed an innate ability to probe beyond what most people permitted to be seen, why he was such a good art dealer, managing some very fickle sculptors. Stanford wrote to Eric, wishing him and Lynne the best at their baptisms, which made Stanford furrow his brow as he scribbled those words. Then he permitted that perhaps some people had a need for faith, or that they could more easily discern what lay underneath. Eric Snyder certainly had that gift as a painter, and Lynne seemed equally talented in her own way.
By the time the letter reached the Snyders, Eric and Lynne were preparing for that special Sunday, although other than answering questions posed by Pastor Jagucki, there was little for them to do. Now that Jane was back to her good-humored self, parents weren’t doing more than catering to her needs, and for a mother and daughter, posing for the artist-in-residence. While contractors bustled about, Eric captured those women in the sunroom, and had the joy of including Renee in a few sittings. Eric thought Renee’s shorter tresses were beautiful, but something rested in her stoplight eyes, a small sorrow as well as a great joy. If Eric didn’t know any better, he thought perhaps she was pregnant, but he kept quiet, painting portraits of a mother, godmother, and Jane as objectively as possible.
On Saturday afternoon, while hammers and saws buzzed outside, Eric put the finishing touches on the canvas, his wife, daughter, and a godmother in the kitchen, making their own sort of hum. Sam would be around for dinner, Renee had said, but neither Snyder asked to his whereabouts. He was with the Canfields, Eric and Lynne assumed, where Fran was still on bed rest, the twins’ condition precarious. Eric didn’t inquire as to why Renee wasn’t with him, or why Sam spent so much time there, what with his large family, and Louie’s, available to assist. After Eric signed his name in the lower left corner of the portrait, he gazed at Renee’s shrouded eyes. The way he’d depicted them reminded him of how he’d portrayed Lynne when she first agreed to pose for him. That had been two years ago, then he’d left for months and…. Eric smiled, flexing his left ankle, hearing his daughter’s giggles. That sound was like magic, and not only because for a month it had slipped from his hearing. Eric couldn’t mourn that long sojourn, or what pain it had caused his wife, who now headed his way. “Are you finally done?” Lynne smiled.
“I am. But I wanna show it off when Sam gets here.” Eric met her in the living room, kissing her cheek. “So you march right back into the kitchen and….”
“Oh really?” Lynne chuckled, trying to look past him, but her attempts were in jest as she smirked, then turned back toward where their daughter now laughed loudly. Eric followed her, but wondered what the mood was like at the Canfields; eventually this confinement would end, and after time Fran would be back on her feet, although maybe then she would pine for days when she was assigned to bed, for once she had two more babies to raise…. Reaching the kitchen, Eric smiled, finding Jane in Renee’s arms, this household somewhat noisy but contained. When Eric and Lynne were ready to add to their family, it would be at their discretion. Eric hoped to fill all those upstairs rooms, well, all but Stanford and Laurie’s, but perhaps three or four children, if they were so blessed. Then Eric shrugged. Who was he to assume anything?
“So when’s that other half of yours due to arrive?” Eric sat beside Renee, who didn’t immediately hand over the baby. He knew that was due to his yet unwashed hands and that it took a lot to pry Jane away from her auntie.
Renee smiled, then kissed the baby’s chubby cheeks. “Anytime I think. I suppose I could call over there, see if he’s left yet.”
“Oh, no rush. I still need to clean up.”
“Yes you do,” Renee gently chided. “Why do you think I’m still holding her?”
Eric laughed loudly, then stood, blowing his daughter and her aunt several kisses. “All right, I get the hint. I’ll be back in a few.”
He stepped toward the open front door, hearing women’s cackles behind him. Eric walked around the house to the studio, where workers were packing for the day. They nodded and said their goodbyes and Eric smiled, happy for their cheerful natures. Last month had seemed somewhat dark, what with Jane’s colic and the Aherns’ absences, about which Eric pondered, when he had a moment. Had his daughter been affected by her godparents’ distance and if so, what might happen to Jane if Eric again disappeared?
He felt no immediate threat, and Stanford’s letter, received just that morning, hadn’t noted any more than good luck with the baptisms, which had made Eric chuckle, as if he could sense Stanford’s disdain within that man’s handwriting. Laurie had sent Lynne a lovely card with the same sentiments, but Laurie’s were sincere, tinged with the knowledge of what Sunday would mean to both Snyders. Laurie didn’t observe Jewish customs, but he appreciated the Snyders’ choice of faith, or that they had embraced faith. As Eric reached the studio, he wondered how such differing personalities could have fallen in love.
When Eric returned to the house, Sam was seated in the kitchen, looking tired but pleased to be holding his goddaughter. The men shared a brief hello, but dinner was nearly ready, and Sam said he was hungry. Small talk centered on Eric’s completed painting and on Sunday’s big event, for which Sam passed the Canfields’ regards as well as their apologies. Eric and Lynne smiled, letting it pass, but while Lynne began to speak about lunch here on Sunday, Eric studied Sam’s countenance and his affections toward Renee. Usually the couple wasn’t overly mushy, and it wasn’t that Sam was caressing her hand or face, but there was something new between them, akin to reconciliation. Last month, when the couples basically didn’t interact, had a fight occurred? Eric glanced at Sam, but didn’t stare, for Sam would meet Eric’s eyes with a questioning gaze, and Eric didn’t wish to set a pall over the meal. That all were sharing dinner together was a treat, as was Jane drowsy in her uncle’s arms. Ground had been lost in the struggle to keep Jane awake in the early evenings, but now that colic seemed to have faded, Eric wanted his daughter to recall those earlier weeks. “Don’t let her go to sleep Sam,” Eric smiled. “I wanna keep her up tonight.”
Lynne met Eric’s eyes. “You sure about that?”
He nodded, then sat back from the table. “I wanna sleep this evening,” he chuckled. “Here Sam, give her to me.”
Sam handed the sleepy infant to her father. Eric stood, jiggling her slightly, and she stirred, then looked around. Her eyes were as blue as the day she was born and Eric looked at Sam, meeting that man’s gaze. Then Eric felt a deep pain, balanced by a hard-won victory. Sam tried to look away, but couldn’t, nodding at Eric.
Lynne glanced at them, then spoke. “What’s up between you two?”
“What?” Sam said, taking his last bite of dinner.
“What what?” Renee looked at her husband.
“Sam just wants pie,” Eric said. “And to see the painting. C’mon Jane, let’s go show Uncle Sam you and the women you love most.”
Renee giggled, then stood from the table. Sam joined her and they headed to the sunroom. Lynne was the last to rise and she quizzically gazed at her husband. Eric kissed her, but said nothing as they walked to where the canvas waited.
After accolades and dessert were shared, the women took Jane up for a bath, in part to keep her alert. Eric cleared the plates with Sam’s assistance. Then Eric cleared his throat. “Shall we inspect the new storage building?”
“Sure.” Sam smiled, but it seemed forced. Eric nodded, then stepped to the bottom of the stairs. He hollered the men’s intentions and was told to take his time.
Eric led Sam through the kitchen, neither in a hurry. Sam remarked that the pie was quite filling, what with custard on the side. Eric agreed, not hearing any jealousy in Sam’s voice that Lynne seemed to have mastered Sam’s recipe. The men reached the patio, but the furniture was covered in a fine layer of dust. Eric ran a finger through it, then smiled. “Last summer everything was a mess and here it is again. One of these days we’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Just a cycle of improvements. Although,” Sam grinned, “this place has seen plenty of them since you guys moved in.”
Eric nodded. Perhaps this property would always be in a state of renovation, although Eric did want sod laid before Jane was firmly on her feet, another sibling in the works. The storage building would be completed in another week; Eric hadn’t wanted it rushed, for it would house a part of his life that for many years had seemed all encompassing. His love for Lynne was the largest part, but he stored all those feelings within his heart, or lavished them upon her. Yet art had also completed him, and it was finally time to put those paintings where they belonged, which no longer was inside his house. He might continue to paint in the sunroom, but canvases required their own space because children needed those bedrooms. Eric smiled, then faced Sam. “Something happened last month. Is everything all right?”
Sam shot Eric a sharp gaze, then shook his head. Within seconds, he was nodding, shoving his hands into his pockets. But his smile warmed Eric’s heart. “We’re gonna adopt, been meaning to find time to tell you guys, but I’ve been so busy.”
Eric embraced Sam in a bear hug. “Oh my God, that’s wonderful! When?”
“Maybe before the end of the year, or early in ’63. We’ve been talking about it just over the last couple of weeks, seriously, I mean. It was hard to, well….” Sam hesitated, then cracked his knuckles. He looked right at Eric. “She wants to be a mother and I wanna be a dad, and between Jane and Fran’s kids, I suppose it hit us over the head like a sledgehammer.”
“Well, that’s fantastic. I wondered, I mean, there’s been something in Renee’s eyes.”
“Yeah, I saw it in the painting. How do you do that Eric?”
Sam’s tone asked more than how Eric had known Renee’s longing, for Eric had painted something else in those stoplight eyes, a sorrow that he couldn’t excise. Any other way wouldn’t have been the truth and Eric felt that was art’s most important purpose. He had shielded his wife, but that was to protect Lynne, which he’d done out of love. However, he couldn’t conceal the slight agony that Renee possessed, even if she and Sam were going to become parents. Something had been sacrificed to clear that hurdle, but Eric wouldn’t press Sam for details.
Eric stepped away from Sam, motioning to the building. “They’ll be done by next weekend. I’ll still use the studio to let paintings dry, but I can’t wait to get them outta the house. Well, some will go to the library for a few weeks,” he smiled. “But most of them will be out here and they’ll probably stay out here a long time. Stanford wants an autumn show, but I’m not quite ready to ship them east. When I do, they won’t be coming back for a while.”
“A few European museums have asked to show them.” Eric smiled, a fact only between him, Lynne, and Stanford. “And actually, I’m thinking of sending many of the nudes over there. Lynne’s okay with it, and well….” Eric chuckled. “They’ll raise quite a furor here, but Lynne’s right. She’s not that woman anymore and they are beautiful paintings, if I do say so myself. Better to let them be exhibited than stuck back here, hidden from view.”
Sam coughed. “So then why build this thing?”
“Well, there’s some we don’t wanna share,” Eric smiled. “And of course all those with Jane. I won’t exhibit them past our town library. And future ones of her and Lynne and whoever else comes along.” Eric sighed. “And whatever else I feel like painting that needs to be kept out of the public eye.” He stared at Sam, then grinned. “Like the canvases in Minnesota, that sort of thing. If nothing else, we need space in the house, and it’s about time I ’fess up to who I really am, which is a painter, but first, a father.” Eric walked to where Sam stood, then put his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I added onto the house in hopes that Lynne and I’d one day make a family. And we have and that’s been the biggest blessing. But I still need room for art, and for those New Yorkers, and maybe in the new year, another baby.”
Sam trembled. “Is Lynne, are you….”
“We’re not even thinking about it, especially after how June went. My goodness, for a while I thought my lovely little girl had turned into Godzilla.”
Sam nodded, then had a nervous laugh. “Yeah, you said she was pretty cranky.”
“She was, no doubt about it. I think she missed her godparents.”
Sam flinched, then cleared his throat. “Well the hospital was understaffed and Fran needed a hand and….”
“And I’m so glad you could be there for her. We really are Sam, and we’re praying for her and the babies and everyone over there. Lynne and I pray for them every day.”
“Well, they need it. She really wanted to be there on Sunday. Says she’s praying for you guys too.”
“And we need it, believe me.” Eric smiled, gently slapping Sam’s back. “I’m so happy for you and Renee, you’re gonna make wonderful parents.”
“Well, we’ll see.” Then Sam sighed. “Eric, can I ask you something?”
“I hope it’s not for fatherly advice.”
Sam cracked a smile, shaking his head. “How, I mean, how do you….” Sam stopped, then cleared his throat.
Eric nearly prodded Sam, for he knew what that man wanted to ask. Instead Eric gazed at the nearly completed outbuilding. “After next month’s exhibit, I’m gonna decide, with Lynne’s help, which paintings we should part with. And I mean really part with. I painted so many of her last summer and autumn till I left. All those are fair game, depending on what she thinks. The ones I did when I came back are different. Lynne hasn’t said much about them, but I don’t think she wants them sold, or even shown. Maybe a few, or maybe none. But as for the rest, I’ve done some of my best work in those canvases and other than the one of her on the stool, she said she didn’t care what I did with them. At the time, I wasn’t sure anyone else should see them, but now, well, things are always changing. I wanted a place to store the paintings, but maybe this building won’t actually house all that many, or not at one time. But there’s still so much I wanna paint, and not just Lynne and Jane.”
Eric paused, but didn’t look at Sam. “There’s the Canfields after the babies arrive and Fran’s feeling better.” He smiled. “And maybe some little Aherns running alongside Helene and Johnny, it’s Johnny right?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Helene and Johnny and….”
“And several older siblings who’ll be eager to meet whoever you and Renee bring into the family.”
Sam faced Eric. “You can paint them, her and our….” Sam tried to smile, then forced a weary grin. “But not….”
“I know Sam, I know.”
Stillness emerged, followed by a cool wind. Eric shivered, then looked into the dusky sky. “Best we get inside. I’m surprised Renee hasn’t come hunting for us.”
Quickly Sam turned for the house, leaving Eric several steps behind. But as Sam reached the patio, he stopped, allowing Eric to catch up. Sam gazed at Eric, who nodded emphatically. Nothing else needed to be shared.
On Saturday night, Lynne and Eric once again read through the baptismal service in the Lutheran Service Book. Jane was asleep and while normally parents used that time for cuddles, both Snyders wanted to refresh themselves with tomorrow’s events. Baptism wasn’t akin to marriage, although Lynne felt that she was preparing herself for a further-reaching relationship. Then she looked at Eric, who was silently reading, but still moving his lips. She wanted to caress his face, but didn’t wish to break his concentration. The creases along his eyes were similar to when he was deep into a painting, but another level of attentiveness was being plumbed. A warm surge rushed through Lynne’s heart for she understood that awareness, and quickly she said a brief prayer, thanking God that she and her husband were together on this.
She had wanted to worship alongside Eric and once he announced his doubts with Catholicism, she was briefly pained, for that faith had brokered her into a new world. It was far more binding than motherhood or marriage, and with so much to learn. Jane’s bout with colic had introduced to a new mother another side of her beloved baby and Lynne had felt similarly when Eric first told her about turning into a hawk. She had resigned herself to those transformations, but even a life steeped in that uncertainty didn’t relate to belief in an unseen, triune God who saved souls after normal lifespans ceased. The afterlife didn’t frighten Lynne, but it made her cautious of exactly what was she committing herself to.
The couple reclined in bed, dressed in pajamas, and had been sharing the one service book. Pastor Jagucki had offered them each one, but Lynne had thought a single copy was enough, and in the morning they would return the loaner to St. Matthew’s. It was merely to familiarize themselves with the order of service, which actually was for an infant baptism. They knew the questions their pastor would ask, the same ones he had posed to their daughter, answered on her behalf by Renee and Sam. Those sponsors would be present tomorrow, but Lynne and Eric would speak of their own accord, agreeing to queries handed down for hundreds of years by people equally minded that life was more than what could be witnessed within this corporeal realm. Perhaps it wasn’t at all strange that Lynne and Eric had come to faith, for Eric’s existence was proof that the impossible was indeed attainable.
Lynne’s parents hadn’t actively shunned the idea of God, but they’d simply had no interest in exploring that possibility. What would they make of her decision now, she wondered, but then, how in the world would she have explained Eric? Human beings did not turn into animals, it simply wasn’t possible. Yet, her husband did, or he had; daily Lynne prayed that Eric’s transformation last December was the final one. But she wouldn’t be surprised if he altered again, although she wasn’t sure what would be the impetus. His father was dead, Seth was better. To whom else might Eric need to minister?
As Eric turned the page, Lynne studied his furrowed brow, those wide gray eyes, his lips still moving in a rapid hush; he was in another place, but it wasn’t to do with art or nature. It was a solitary spot where she often found herself when Jane was still and Eric was busy. Then Lynne could close her eyes, fold her hands, and without fanfare find herself no longer alone. Yet, she was sitting without being distracted, no pie to bake or yarn to knit or weeds to pull. In those contemplative moments, Lynne aligned her soul to a force that was stronger than the love she had for Eric or Jane, a pull that previously Lynne hadn’t realized existed. She adored her husband and their daughter, human emotions tying her to them in ways that were still being fostered. Lynne loved Eric more now that he was a father, but it didn’t compare to the sense she found while in meditation with God. Had nursing Eric last December been a part of that, having to trust solely on an entity she couldn’t see or hear? Yet, Lynne knew as intimately as breathing that her role was to care for Eric, not relinquish him to medical authorities. Sam had understood immediately, Renee had taken longer. Eric had never questioned Lynne’s decision; he’d known just as strongly that whether he lived or died wasn’t up to doctors or treatments. It was all on one woman’s faith and one God’s choice.
That weekend had crystalized Lynne’s decision to become a Christian, although at the time, the denomination was still in flux. But whether they were Catholic or Lutheran or any other denomination mattered little, for those qualifiers were swept aside in the bigger picture. Lynne didn’t feel any less close to Renee, in fact, she felt even more bound to her, for the Aherns were going to adopt a child. Lynne blinked away tears, for the joy in her heart over that decision was nearly akin to being baptized. Parenthood was a sacrament of sorts, Lynne felt, then she smiled at herself for such an antiquated idea. Or a Catholic thought, but to a woman who for years had agonized over not being able to conceive, Renee and Sam’s impending parental status was worth a few tears. It was worth many, for while Renee had shared in Jane’s birth, even realizing how it felt to be pregnant, those were fleeting moments. Motherhood on a daily basis had brought Lynne Snyder to completion.
But then so had marrying Eric, and so would tomorrow’s ceremony. Was life fulfilled by one vocation, or did it require more than a single inclination? As Eric closed the service book, setting it on the mattress, Lynne didn’t immediately speak, but she wanted his opinion. Art was a consuming passion, but it wasn’t her husband’s only outlet.
Eric smiled at her, making Lynne’s cheeks flush. They hadn’t made love that morning, for Jane had woke early, and throughout the day no time had emerged to sneak into their bedroom and revel in that intimacy. No longer could they simply tumble into bed; Lynne had to insert her diaphragm, which didn’t take long, but was a small hindrance. Lynne wasn’t yet ready to think about getting pregnant again, but when that time came, she’d be happy to resume the spontaneous nature of their previous affections, although Jane would curtail some of it. But she was still so little, nursing every few hours, and Lynne coveted those sessions, for she had never expected to experience such moments. Renee and Sam wanted to adopt an older child and that would most likely be best. But Lynne thanked God for having been presented the opportunity to give birth. She had relished it even when Jane had been so miserable.
“What’re you thinking?” Eric asked, stroking her face. “You look a million miles away.”
“I’m not, you know.” Lynne giggled, then nestled against him. “Actually, I wanna be very close to you.”
He groaned in desire as she maneuvered herself on top of him. They necked for several minutes, then Eric removed her pajama top. Lynne still wore her nursing bra, but she lay on his bare chest, the feel of their mostly naked skin an added pleasure. Then Lynne broke the kiss, but didn’t move away from her husband. “There’re so many ways to achieve ecstasy,” she smiled.
“This’s a very good one.” Eric’s voice was hoarse. “Why don’t you go….”
She nodded, but didn’t move.
They kissed again, only their pajama pants precluding further activity. Eric moaned from the pressure, but Lynne didn’t stop until he pulled away from her mouth. “Oh God, you win,” he gasped. “What, you wanna make a baby?”
She giggled, then sat up. “I really love you.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Eric smiled, caressing her hips. “Lynne, do you wanna try again already?”
She shook her head. “I just wanted you to know how I feel about you.”
He had a husky laugh. “Believe me I know. If I know any more….”
She wore a saucy smile, then got off of him. Lynne went into their bathroom, giggling as she partially closed the door.
An hour later, she was nursing Jane, who had stirred just as her parents lay spent. Eric had fetched the baby as Lynne adjusted her bra, and now Lynne felt no other physical release was necessary. She was tucked into Eric’s grasp, their child happy at her breast, and it was then Lynne began to speak. “I was watching you, reading the service. You were lost in it like you were painting something so captivating.”
“Mmmhmmm. Lynne, I am so excited for tomorrow.”
He had a languid sigh. “I was thinking about December, when I came home. I could barely think, other than whatever happened, I was gonna be all right. And it was strange, because it wasn’t like when I’d come back the year before. Then I had no idea if I was gonna be human again, or some half-bird, half-man. Now when I look back on that, I wonder how much of that week was for Sam. Maybe most of it, I can’t rightly say. But last Christmas honey, that was for us.”
“Do you think of it, I mean….”
“I was while you were studying. Never in my life had I given myself up to, to….” Lynne paused, staring at her daughter’s busy jaw, those blue eyes occasionally seeking a mother’s gaze. Every time Jane made eye contact, Lynne wondered how she had lived without that sort of rapport. And that relationship was solely due to Eric’s long absence and his traumatic alteration. Then a year later, she had been transformed, for in that weekend, Lynne learned without a doubt the proof of God, no way to dismiss the feelings coursing through her, only asking for her faith. The outcome could have been disastrous; Eric could have easily succumbed to that raging fever. If he had died…. Then Lynne began to softly weep, for the surrounding blessings told her she had done the right thing. The right thing had been to ignore conventional wisdom and to embrace the unthinkable. She had refused to admit her deathly ill husband to the hospital, instead relying on the most ethereal yet powerful personal sense she had ever encountered. Not even falling in love with Eric had infused Lynne with such hope.
But it wasn’t hope alone; perseverance was bound to absolute optimism. Lynne understood Abraham’s choice to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, for that was what she had been asked to do. She hadn’t said that to Renee or Sam, she hadn’t been asked by Pastor Jagucki why becoming a Lutheran was so important, but if anyone inquired, Lynne wouldn’t hesitate. God had set upon her heart to let him heal Eric. She had acquiesced to that appeal, fully aware of how sick her husband was. There had been no other choice possible; all that Lynne had been considering about faith was put to the most intense test by that one plea.
Perhaps God had been more forceful with Abraham. That man was, by God’s design, the father of many nations. Lynne was merely one woman, so God’s entreaty hadn’t been overwhelming. Yet the gravity had been the same, the loss of one most beloved. For years Lynne and Eric had lived solely for one another. To lose him would have been as devastating to her as Isaac’s death to a very old man who had been promised as the father of numerous descendants. That aged man had trudged up that mountain, fully aware that what God was asking was in direct contrast to what that same God had promised. But faith was more important than the promise, for if God said such and such would occur, Abraham believed that somehow, some way, it would come to pass. And now months later, the culmination of Lynne’s faith rested in her arms, and awaited the morning. She couldn’t wait to reply in ringing affirmation of what Pastor Jagucki would inquire. Lynne ached to announce her belief in an invisible but quite real God who in three parts ruled the universe and had saved her immortal soul. But not only hers, Eric’s too, and Jane’s. Lynne smiled at her now drowsy baby, those blue eyes gently closed, her jaw no longer active. A mother’s nipple sat halfway in Jane’s slack mouth, just as ancient Sarah had once sat with baby Isaac in her arms. Lynne shut her eyes tightly, but tears escaped; that woman had waited until she was ninety years old to bear what God had pledged, and not only to Abraham. Sarah would be the mother of many nations, even if she was a shriveled old woman.
How many children would Lynne and Eric have? Lynne smiled, then leaned against her husband. “I love you,” she whispered, closing her eyes. She had said that to him several times during that December weekend, not because she was afraid of losing him, but to remind him of her presence, and to give thanks for him, and for that trial, although at the time, she might not have realized the need to be grateful for such a test. More she had been awed by the presence of joy, but not merely for Eric’s return. The joy had been borne of the unshakeable awareness of Christ, manifest in his request for trust. Until that point, Lynne hadn’t understood the comfort or reliance upon God that seemed inseparable in how Renee and Sam believed. She had assumed that level had been achieved by their life-long relationships with Jesus, their baptisms as infants. Maybe Sam was blessed by his time in Korea, Renee by her work as a nurse. Yet, it probably had nothing to do with those events. It was a very personal moment, or a gathering of them, during which God made himself known either by a quiet voice, a touch upon one’s soul, or whatever was necessary. In Lynne’s case, it had been the firm but loving tapping on her heart to not take the expected course, but to simply minister to Eric by mopping the sweat from his brow, spooning into him whatever he could swallow, and holding his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Had she slept during those few days, Lynne wasn’t certain. But when the fever broke early on Christmas Eve morning, his eyes cloudy but affixed on her face, Lynne knew her prayers had been answered, as well as God’s petition for her confidence. At no time during those long, dark hours had she become discouraged. The year before, frustration and loneliness were all she had known. But her life, as well as Eric’s, had been changed during his lengthy absence, and not for the worse. Lynne opened her eyes, setting Jane over her shoulder. Two subdued burps reminded a mother and father that yes, miracles happened, often in the most unlikely manner.
“Is she ready to go back to sleep?” Eric’s tone was soft.
Lynne nodded, scooting forward, so Eric could get out of bed. He stood, taking the baby from Lynne’s grasp. Within a minute, he returned, but didn’t immediately get in beside his wife. “What?” Lynne asked.
Eric stroked her now damp cheek. “I love you. I love her. I love….” He paused, then chuckled. “God. All these blessings are his doing.”
Lynne gripped his hands, bowing her head. But the prayer she said was silent, although she felt Eric’s missives coursing through their entwined fingers. They released each other at the same time, then Eric slid under the covers. Soon they were wrapped close, again making love. No words emerged, but teeming hearts sent many thanks heavenwards.
A warm breeze blew on the back patio, but Jane wasn’t bothered. At four and a half months old, she was an even-tempered but active baby, that sole month of colic a faded memory. Dark brown hair was thick on the very top of her head, but thin on the sides where she had rubbed much of it off. Yet her smile was wide, her blue eyes as well, for she was surrounded by those she loved best; her parents, godparents, and one Polish pastor of whom she was particularly fond. Marek Jagucki was like another godparent, and he was teaching her Polish. Whenever the pastor held Jane, he only spoke in his native tongue.
It had been Eric’s idea, in that it would give Marek someone else to converse with in his own language. No one nearby spoke Polish and Marek had smiled, then taken Eric’s suggestion as a challenge, not sure if a baby could pick up another dialect when she only heard it sporadically. But since Eric and Lynne had been baptized, Pastor Jagucki had found himself almost adopted by the couple, or perhaps it was due to how much time Eric and the pastor had spent together arranging the exhibit, which was slated to open that Friday, August tenth, at the town library. Marek had been amazed at the quality of Eric’s work, also the range of his imagination. From hawks and other natural settings to family portraits and the nudes of Lynne, Marek had been treated to a fairly complete retrospective. The first nudes, under the guises of farms and coral reefs, weren’t represented, but Eric had given the pastor one of the brochures from that show. Eric also briefly explained the two paintings in Minnesota and why they had been sent to the Midwest. In those confidences, a bond had been established between a painter and minister, although Marek Jagucki did not offer Eric Snyder details of his past.
Marek knew that for many years Eric and Lynne had been unable to conceive and that it had been Eric’s fault. He knew that Laurie Abrams’ cousin was receiving psychiatric treatment at the Caffey-Miller Institute. And he knew that Eric and Lynne’s decision to adopt the Christian faith had been solidified by an unfortunate illness Eric suffered right before last Christmas. Eric hadn’t told Marek how he became so ill, only that Lynne had followed God’s call, and now here they were, baptized Lutherans. Marek hadn’t probed deeply to ascertain these facts; they had simply spilled from Eric as paintings were admired, then placed in the best arrangement for the show. Even over pie a few particulars had been shared, but those were of a lighter nature, how glad Eric was that the pastor had brought up this idea, and how eager Eric was to hear his daughter speak Polish. Jane Snyder would carry a mix of her heritages, from her Catholic godparents, New York uncles, and a Polish Lutheran transplanted to America’s West Coast.
Those New Yorkers, as Eric still referred to the men, were due to arrive on Wednesday, and Marek was keen to better get to know Mr. Abrams and Mr. Taylor, how he referred to them, for other than a brief formal introduction, little had been spoken between that trio. Marek prayed for Laurie’s cousin Seth, for from all Eric said, that man needed God’s protection and healing. From how Stanford was described, Marek wondered how Eric had been accepted by such a highly respected art dealer, for Marek had seen some of Eric’s early canvases. They were rough compared to his later paintings, but Stanford Taylor must have seen something that held promise. Then Marek glanced at the Aherns, Renee’s bold eyes appealing for a chance to hold her goddaughter. In Polish, Marek whispered that he loved Jane, then he softly kissed the baby’s cheek, handing her to a woman with no children of her own. Marek also knew the reason behind that, but since the Snyders had been baptized, rumors had wafted that perhaps by 1963 that situation would be rectified.
Marek spoke several languages; in addition to his native tongue he was fluent in German, Hungarian, and Ukrainian as well as English and Italian. He could get by in French and Spanish, but his Portuguese was limited. He was useless in the Scandinavian tongues, but could bluff his way through Dutch, especially Flemish, which was similar to French. He’d been a polyglot in school before the Nazis had invaded, and his mother had been hopeful that her middle son would reach university. Becoming a pastor hadn’t been considered, although Marek’s Uncle Alex had been a Lutheran minister. Marek hadn’t pondered a life in the church until he’d been taken in by a small Lutheran parish, spared by German troops. He was only sixteen, but the clerics told the soldiers that Marek was slow and wasn’t worth taking to a labor camp. Marek hadn’t spoken more than his name to the pastors, for his name was all he could fathom. For over a year, a young man who at the time had already mastered German and Hungarian could barely utter a single word.
Marek had understood everything the soldiers ordered, but acted as dumb as the clerics made him out to be. His life had depended upon that pretense, but it wasn’t solely a deception. Events had rendered him mute, also dense, but when the troops left, some of Marek’s intellect had been stirred, as well as his heart. He was alive because of his mother’s foresight, and again providence had saved him. In the summer of 1942, Marek Jagucki dedicated his life to God in whatever service pleased his holy will. At the time, he wasn’t sure for how long that life would last. Twenty years later, Marek smiled, realizing just how unsuspecting he had been.
He’d never thought he would live long enough to even become a pastor, then he had wondered how he would manage under Soviet rule. Not that life in Poland under the Soviets was miserable, but it was repressive, especially for Lutherans, which compromised a tiny minority in the mostly Catholic country. Marek had fled Poland in 1954 during the political thaw that followed Stalin’s death. He was an ordained minister by then, and had moved to London, serving at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. For several years he had presided over the German services as well as a tiny Polish congregation, taking the English services when necessary. But living in post-war Europe wasn’t fulfilling; too many compromises to the Soviets made Marek uncomfortable, and while he was active at St. Luke’s, he recognized that his gifts were needed elsewhere, much to the consternation of the church council and his longtime girlfriend. Margaret Piller didn’t want to leave her family or her nation, and at the time Marek wondered if his desire to flee the United Kingdom was a test of their relationship. Maggie had been hesitant when Marek spoke about marriage, but that was due to becoming the wife of a pastor. She wasn’t Lutheran, but Anglican, not that those differences were problematic, only the duties attached to being the spouse of a busy cleric. When Marek floated the subject of leaving England, Maggie vacillated, finally breaking off their relationship. That cemented Marek’s decision, and by the spring of 1961, he was on a boat for New York, his ultimate destination the western side of the United States.
That was the story he’d shared with Eric, who had nodded in all the appropriate spots, not asking the more probing questions that Marek rarely had to offer. Few who knew him truly knew everything, not even his beloved Maggie, whom he still missed, but mostly for her physical companionship. His last letter to her, written at Easter, hadn’t been answered, and Marek allowed it was probably for the best. At Christmas, she had mentioned having met someone, and while she had made the official break, Marek had been the one to leave the country. Yet, England wasn’t his native land and returning to Poland wasn’t a consideration. None of Marek’s relatives remained and communism was abhorrent. He didn’t mention that to Eric either, better to talk about art and other pleasant aspects of life.
He did enjoy speaking Polish to Jane; he told her stories of growing up in a somewhat poor but happy household, his older brother and younger sister two of his best friends. Marek hoped the Snyders would have several children, only in that Marek had thrived in his large extended family, cousins on both sides contributing to the sense of belonging that prevailed no matter how meager were the living conditions. Marek permitted the better memories, eschewing those so traumatic they had silenced him for over a year. Speaking Polish to Jane hadn’t caused any sorrow; somehow that baby was a magnet for the delight that had infused most of Marek’s childhood.
Or maybe it was the joy she offered those with whom Marek sat. There was no disguising their communal bliss; Eric’s broad laughter was matched by Sam, the women’s chuckles tender and affectionate. Marek was of their age and he relished their pleasures despite their differences. But tragedy had marked them all; Sam’s tour in Korea was behind that couple’s childlessness, and something had kept the Snyders from having a family. Marek hadn’t been able to discern what that might be from Eric’s paintings, perhaps it was just a fluke. Yet, those canvases did reveal a man torn by some demon, Marek hadn’t missed that. The pictures of Lynne, nudes and from everyday life, told stories as well, that woman having suffered a long trial. Yet, it wasn’t simply connected to infertility. Marek observed the adults, who seemed to get on very well. However, these friendships weren’t tied to Jane or to the Aherns’ lack of offspring. Something else bound these people and Marek wondered if he would ever learn the reason.
Then he chuckled as Eric asked if it was time for pie. Sam stood, announcing that it most certainly was, and the gentlemen headed into the house. “Do you need any help?” Marek asked.
“Only in the eating,” Eric grinned. “Just stay put, we’ll be right back.”
Marek nodded, then gazed at Lynne. “I must say, your pie is the best I have ever had. Not even my mother could beat it.”
Lynne giggled. “Well, thank you. My dad was fond of pie and Mom was a very good cook.”
Marek smiled. All of Eric and Lynne’s parents were deceased, Eric’s imprisoned father the last to have passed in December. Eric had spoken about him while paintings were admired, his tone somewhat flat. Marek had been surprised by the news, but not for Eric’s lack of emotion. It was similar to how Marek had felt when he learned Hitler had committed suicide. Relief had been tempered by uncertainty. Monsters were replaceable, but no one had been waiting to lead the regime. He’d felt the same when Stalin died, yet, that man’s demise had brokered Marek’s departure from his homeland. Had Eric known any peace when his father passed away? Perhaps the coming baby had usurped any other sense of closure.
Marek stood as Sam approached, followed by Eric, both with trays in hand. Marek assisted in serving, then asked if Renee wanted to be relieved of Jane’s care. Reluctantly Renee nodded, and Marek took Jane, setting her over his shoulder. She was warm from the sunshine, and cooed softly. Parenthood hadn’t been a deep desire for Marek; serving his parish was paternal enough. Although if God had other ideas, the pastor wouldn’t argue.
While pie was consumed, Marek hummed a lullaby from his childhood, snippets from his past eased by this American infant. Jane didn’t remind Marek of anyone from those days, but maybe her mother was similar to his Aunt Agi, in Lynne’s dark brown hair and her beaming smile. Marek then set Jane in the crook of his elbow, she was fighting sleep. Agi Tusk had brown eyes like Lynne’s, but Jane’s blue irises were stunning. They were the same color as Sam’s eyes, which were the exact hue of the barn in the Aherns’ painting. Marek had noticed that as soon as he saw that canvas, also the frightened mice, and he wondered what had inspired Eric to create it. It had reached deeply into the Pole, causing him a few poor nights’ sleep, but he hadn’t said anything to Eric or anyone else. He’d prayed extensively, unsure why now God was stirring up memories from over twenty years in the past. To Marek, that barn was a copy of one from his hometown, a structure that had been burned to the ground by Nazi troops. Marek wouldn’t consider the contents, but it was as if Eric had read his mind. Yet, Eric had painted that barn before Marek even came to this country.
Marek gazed at Jane, her eyelids still fluttering. He nodded to Lynne, who smiled. “Seems you have a touch with babies,” she said softly.
“Well, Jane’s a special girl.” He grinned, then stared at Lynne. “Shall I take her inside or….”
“You can stay right there.” Eric stood, heading to the house. “I need my sketch pad.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it,” Sam said. “Be ready to star in the next Eric Snyder canvas.”
Marek chuckled. “Well, that would be a pleasure.”
Eric returned, pulling his chair to face the pastor. He sat, then quickly drew the man’s image, as well as the bundle now stirring in Marek’s grasp. When Eric finished, he showed it to the pastor. Marek was amazed at the speed of Eric’s abilities and how precisely he had captured his subjects’ likenesses. Perhaps Jane’s was easy, for Eric knew her face well. But Marek felt he was looking into a mirror, one that displayed a person’s best features. Marek appreciated Eric’s talent, and his discretion. For even in a drawing, Eric had discerned several new facts about the pastor, all within a matter of moments.
Marek looked at the artist and Eric nodded. Then Eric smiled, setting the pad on the table. Immediately Sam picked it up, sharing it with his wife. Lynne leaned their way, but Marek continued to study Eric’s face, those gray eyes with a fascinating capacity to see far into a person. Then Marek wondered what had Eric suffered in return for that gift. His late father had been an unsavory character, but that alone wouldn’t account for the skill Eric possessed, nor would infertility explain it.
Jane yawned, then began to fuss. As she did, Lynne looked toward her daughter. Then a mother stood, stepping around her husband, approaching Marek. “Shall I take her?” Lynne said.
“Of course.” Marek handed over the baby, who was now starting to cry. Lynne spoke softly to Jane, heading into the house. She was followed by Renee, leaving the men to themselves.
Marek ate his pie as Sam still studied the sketch. But Marek felt eyes upon him and he looked up, finding Eric’s gaze. As Sam remarked at how quickly Eric had produced the piece, Eric didn’t answer, still peering at Marek. Then Sam noted how rapidly Eric had drawn his sister Fran and two of her children. And how, from that initial sketch, a whole series of portraits had emerged. Then Sam stopped speaking. He excused himself, moving from the table. When Marek looked in Sam’s direction, that man was already inside the house.
Then Marek again faced Eric. “He’s right, you have immense talent. I’m so looking forward to Friday.”
“Me too.” Eric smiled, then sat back. He glanced at the sketch pad, then into the sky. “Thank you for letting me draw that.”
“I should be the one thanking you. I don’t think I’ve ever been the subject of an artist before.”
“Will it be your last time?” Eric smiled as he spoke, then picked up the pad.
“Probably not,” Marek chuckled. He finished the last of the pie, wiped his mouth with a napkin, then inhaled deeply. “I have a feeling that our paths were meant to cross. What else is a Lutheran Pole doing all the way in America’s wild west?”
Eric laughed. “Not that wild anymore.”
“Perhaps after Friday, the locals won’t agree.”
“Perhaps not.” Eric put the sketch on the table. “Would you mind if I painted this?”
“Not at all. Would it require additional sittings?”
“Probably, but not more than a few. I could get my pencils and add the colors now if you want. Then I probably wouldn’t need another sitting.”
Marek gazed toward the house, hearing the voices of three adults. Then he faced Eric. “No, I don’t mind another afternoon like this. Very little in this world is better than a baby falling asleep in one’s arms, followed by your wife’s boysenberry pie.”
Eric nodded. “I completely agree. Would you like another slice?”
Marek laughed. “Oh no, one is plenty. But more coffee, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.” Eric stood, then retrieved both men’s cups. But he left the rest, which Marek didn’t miss. While Eric was gone, the pastor inspected the drawing, then he said a brief prayer. If God wanted further truths revealed, Marek wouldn’t argue. And perhaps, in exchange, Eric Snyder might concede a few details.
By the time Stanford and Laurie had arrived, the shocking news of Marilyn Monroe’s death had just started to seem real. Not that the Snyders or Aherns were big film buffs, but Monroe’s persona had been larger than life, and she was the same age as Sam, and as Marek Jagucki, which Eric learned on Tuesday when he met with the pastor for one last inspection of the paintings. The Pole had been just as stunned, but when the New Yorkers arrived, their take was less alarming. Stanford had actually met the actress several years ago; she had seemed frail then, and not far from her onscreen guise of a dumb blonde. Laurie spoke of how tragic was her brief life, but with a babbling infant in his grasp, he moved to other subjects as Stanford and Eric discussed opening night. Lynne sat with Laurie in the living room while the other two spoke in the kitchen. Laurie looked exhausted, Lynne thought, but Jane had rejuvenated him some. He smiled brightly, speaking in a gentle voice, yet Lynne heard an underlying tension. She didn’t inquire; the men would be here until Monday, plenty of time for Laurie to unburden his heart if he so desired.
Lynne wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she assumed it had to do with Seth. Stanford’s mother was still in the nursing home and if something was seriously wrong, one of the men would have written about it. All Laurie had noted concerning Seth was his improved condition. But for how drained Laurie appeared, Lynne accepted that certain facts hadn’t been shared.
“She’s gotten so big.” Laurie set Jane over his shoulder, nibbling on her cheeks. She giggled in response, making Laurie sigh. “I keep telling Stan we need to get out here more often. He just rolls his eyes at me.”
Lynne had never considered Stanford as a soft touch, but Laurie possessed a more paternal heart. “We’d love to see you as often as your schedule permits.” She grinned, but bit her lip. Laurie didn’t like leaving the city and of course this trip would make a detour through Minnesota. Yet, Laurie looked more peaceful with Jane in his grasp. His eyes were closed, crow’s feet eased. Then Lynne winced. She had never seen lines around Laurie’s eyes, but he had visibly aged since May, a few gray hairs springing along his temples.
He was a handsome man, a year Sam’s elder, but there on the sofa, even with Jane cuddled close, he looked older than Stanford. Lynne’s pulse raced; there was only one reason for Laurie’s weariness. Lynne didn’t want to disturb him, yet she ached to know the truth. His letters hadn’t been completely honest; something was still wrong in Minneapolis.
She grasped Laurie’s hand and he squeezed tightly. Then he sat up, hoisting Jane into the air, smiling at the gurgling baby. “It’s so good to be here.” His tone was soft. “I’ve missed you all so much.”
Then he gazed at Lynne, nodding his head. “I’ll be back,” he said, handing Jane her way. He stood from the sofa, then walked to the stairs, taking them two at a time. Jane watched him go, making sounds as if calling after him. Lynne blinked away tears, then whispered that Uncle Laurie would be right back.
Laurie didn’t return until dinner was ready and he appeared to have been crying. Lynne and Eric said nothing about that, but Eric spoke about Friday’s events, then Stanford asked when he could see the gathered canvases. “Tomorrow, bright and early.” Eric smiled. “I told Mrs. Stravinsky we’d be over there probably before nine.”
Stanford stared at Eric. “Stravinsky?”
Eric chuckled. “No relation, but she gets asked all the time. Marek and I hung the last painting yesterday and they had a nice little chat in, God, I have no idea what language it was. He speaks about a dozen of them, could’ve been Swahili for all I know.”
Stanford shook his head, but Laurie laughed. “I’m looking forward to meeting him again. Sounds like quite an interesting fellow.”
“He is and Jane’s got him wrapped around her finger.” Eric motioned to the sunroom. “I drew a sketch of them on Sunday, going to be my next project. He’s teaching her Polish, so he’ll have at least one person to speak it with, unless that’s what he and Mrs. Stravinsky were speaking.”
“He’s teaching her Polish, is that what you said?” Stanford held his fork in mid-air. Then he took the bite, chewing thoughtfully. “My God, what’s next? Are you giving her painting lessons too?”
Lynne giggled as Eric nodded. “Why certainly Stan. Right after Lynne shows Jane how to roll out pie crust, then I take her into the studio and we spend the next few hours going over the color wheel.”
Laurie burst out laughing, but Stanford rolled his eyes. “Why is it every time I come here you seem a little more touched than the last time? I think you’re trying to drive me….”
A brief silence wafted, only broken by Jane’s chirpy laughter. Laurie added his, but a small sorrow edged his chuckles. “C’mon Stan, a little insanity’s not a bad thing.”
Eric reached for Stanford’s hand, patting it gently. But the artist said nothing as his daughter’s continued giggles filled the room. The meal was finished in quiet, save for Jane’s outbursts, which lifted Eric’s heart, although he wasn’t sure what her joy did for the New Yorkers.
After pie everyone gathered in the sunroom as the drawing of Jane and the pastor was admired. Stanford said it would make a captivating portrait, but as Laurie studied it, Stanford wondered what his lover thought, for Laurie was unusually hushed, and had been since Stanford had nearly said that Eric was trying to make him crazy. Then Stanford gazed at Eric, who had one arm around Lynne’s shoulder, the other toting his daughter. Fatherhood had settled Eric in a manner Stanford wouldn’t have imagined. His physical bearing was good; no longer did he seem thin. He sported a healthy tan, his hair a lighter shade of blonde than in May. Then Stanford sighed. Laurie used to look that carefree, but since their conversation alone in the kitchen, a lingering sadness had afflicted him, although it had abated some since arriving at this home. Stanford gazed toward the garden, finding a small building beside the studio, another alteration to this property. To the left of the studio was a vast space that previously had been forest. Now it was upturned earth, but what was Eric going to do with all that land?
As Jane began to whimper, Lynne excused herself. Stanford wondered if she would remain in the living room, or take the baby to the nursery. He hoped for the latter, because he wasn’t ready for her to learn what Laurie needed to tell the Snyders. Eric could hear it first, then he could relay the basics to his wife, not that Laurie had proof, but a letter he had received, just days ago, seemed to confirm all of Laurie’s reservations. Seth would be coming home in autumn and while the rest of the family was thrilled, Laurie harbored suspicions. He didn’t blame Dr. Tasker or other staff at Caffey-Miller. He blamed Seth for not being honest, a trait Laurie’s cousin had previously possessed in abundance.
Yet, what could Laurie offer to refute the gains Seth had achieved since shock therapy had been initiated? He was even sculpting, which should have thrilled Laurie. Instead he had shivered in Stanford’s arms, for something wasn’t right, although Laurie couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong. It was Seth’s words in the letter, as if they had been written by someone else. Maybe Stanford would suggest that this Polish linguist give it a read. Maybe his clerical background could discern exactly what Seth was trying to convey, or better yet, what he was still wishing to hide.
And to further irritate Stanford was the news about Marilyn Monroe; why did people think suicide was an answer? That was what the papers reported and Stanford believed it in part from their one brief encounter, and that he knew many fragile souls who depended on drugs, some legal, some not, to maintain their grip on reality. Stanford wasn’t naïve; several of his artists were addicted to one narcotic or another, or were alcoholics. At one time Stanford had thought that perhaps Eric was a similar sort, his strange absences giving the dealer pause. Yet, all Stanford saw now was a healthy, happy husband, but more, a father. In this idyllic albeit often changing setting, Eric thrived, as did his wife and child. Jane was a delight, no evidence of her month-long colic, much to Stanford’s relief. He’d held her while Lynne and Eric set the table for dinner, before Laurie came back down. Stanford had enjoyed bobbing her up and down, for she didn’t cry, she actually smiled at him. She also left smudges all over his glasses, which before had annoyed when his nieces and nephews had done the same. But before he wiped off the marks, Stanford had observed how tiny and delicate were Jane’s fingerprints. Would she be an artist like her father or a nurse like her mother or a chef like Sam Ahern? Might she actually speak Polish, or perhaps she would grow up appreciating art to the point where she followed in the footsteps of….
Her soft babbles caught Stanford’s attention, had Lynne been nursing her all that time just around the corner? Then Stanford found he was alone in the sunroom, where were Laurie and Eric? Stepping toward the open French doors, Stanford peered into the dusky evening. Squinting, he saw Laurie standing beside Eric just past the patio. Laurie motioned to the studio, then to the sky. Stanford wanted to join them, for he knew what Laurie had shared. Again it was one man’s supposition, yet, no one in this world knew Seth better than Laurie did.
Footsteps made Stanford shudder, then Lynne stood beside him, Jane in her arms. Lynne didn’t speak, yet her presence eased Stanford’s racing heart. Then she gripped his hand as Jane giggled. Stanford clutched Lynne’s fingers, both watching their beloveds as evening fell around them.
In bed that night, Eric shared Laurie’s misgivings. Lynne nodded, snuggling against Eric. Neither mentioned what this could mean to them, but ideas were hard to ignore. The couple made love, then sleep overtook them until Jane started crying at two a.m.
Eric fetched her and she slept between her parents for the rest of the night. When Eric stirred, it was nearly seven, and the bed was empty. He got up, used the bathroom, then put on his robe. The guest room door was closed, but the nursery door was open, then he heard voices downstairs, his wife, daughter, and…. Eric couldn’t tell which New Yorker was awake. He took the stairs, finding Laurie sitting at the table, Jane on his lap, Lynne fixing breakfast. “Good morning,” Eric said, walking to his wife, giving her a kiss. “How long’ve you been up?”
“Since six,” Laurie smiled. “Stan thought about joining us, but instead rolled back over. Did you hear him snoring?”
“Only heard this girl here.” Eric sat beside Laurie, but didn’t try to take Jane. He tickled her chin, then reached for the coffee Lynne brought to the table. It was the perfect temperature to drink and he took several sips while noting his company. Laurie looked rested, but then he had given Eric plenty of food for thought last night. Eric didn’t feel overly troubled; if Laurie’s assertions were true, Seth would probably be fine for the rest of the year. However, a cloud now hovered over 1963, but on that day, Eric wouldn’t contemplate any what if’s. He drank more coffee, then turned toward his wife. “You need any help?”
“Hardly. All Laurie wanted for breakfast was pie.”
“Pie?” Eric gazed at his guest. “Well, did you get some?”
“Of course. I think Jane wanted a bite, but I wasn’t sure if pie had been added to her diet. And while I love her very much, she can have pie anytime.”
Jane giggled as if fully aware of Laurie’s sentiment.
“Well, that girl has to wait another few months before she gets anything resembling pie.” Lynne brought Eric’s breakfast to the table, then sat beside him. “She’s just getting the hang of cereal, thank you. Perhaps we’ll try pie at Thanksgiving.”
“That sounds like the perfect time to introduce it.” Laurie smiled, then handed the baby to her mother. “All right, if Stan sleeps much longer, he’ll be a bear the rest of the day. I’m going for a shower and we’ll see you both in about an hour. But,” Laurie chuckled, reaching the kitchen doorway, “don’t tell him what I had for breakfast. I wanna see if he asks for the same.”
Lynne made a zipping motion on her lips while Eric nodded. “It’s our secret,” he said as Laurie stepped away.
Eric waited a minute to speak, then he sighed. “How was he this morning?”
“Not too bad.” Lynne cuddled her baby, then as Jane whined, Lynne set her daughter to nurse. “He apologized for bringing it up last night. But honestly, I don’t think he could’ve waited until today.”
Eric nodded, then took a bite of toast. He drank more coffee, then stroked his wife’s face. “I wish there was something we could do now, try to head this off at the pass.” He smiled, then shook his head. “Maybe Seth’ll surprise all of us. Maybe he’ll be all right.”
Lynne didn’t meet Eric’s gaze. “Maybe.”
Eric finished eating, then put his plate in the sink. He stood behind his wife, gently grasping her shoulders. “I wanna tell you I won’t leave again, but that wouldn’t be any more honest than Seth.”
“We’ll be all right, I mean….” As Lynne leaned back, Eric caressed her face. Then he stared at his daughter, settled against her mother’s bosom. How many times had Eric painted this scene, but not from this angle. The closest he had depicted this particular image was that first painting of Lynne and Jane right after the baby’s birth. But Eric had been seated behind his wife, at eye-level with their newborn daughter. Now Jane was so changed, making Eric cringe at even the possibility of being separated from her. He had never wanted to leave Lynne, but she was an adult. What might happen to a baby if her father went missing?
Perhaps she wouldn’t realize his departure, or at least it wouldn’t affect her. Then Eric thought about the faint trauma that lingered in his pastor’s brown eyes. How had that man’s family perished and how had Marek survived? He’d been a teen at the time, what Eric deduced not from anything Marek had revealed, only by a general knowledge of dates and assumptions. When Seth was a teenager, he’d fashioned two detailed sculptures, then felt compelled to join the army. But Jane was only an infant and if Eric had to leave sometime next year, hopefully she would have enough of him stored in her brain to compensate for even a lengthy sojourn.
And of course that was a big if. If Seth suffered a relapse, if Eric transformed at all. In the last two years, he had changed three times, although for much longer stretches than ever before. Neither he nor Lynne could predict when or the length of any subsequent flight and Eric closed his eyes, asking to be spared from another departure. Not for himself, but for his daughter, then he opened his eyes, finding Jane staring right at him.
Would she remember him, or was she too young? It had taken her a few minutes to warm to Stanford and Laurie, but she was an amiable girl, and soon it was like she saw them on a daily basis. Yet, she definitely knew the Aherns and Marek Jagucki. Of course she’d remember her father….
Eric sat next to Lynne, then placed his hand along Jane’s cheek. He wanted to will into her how much he loved her, that this was out of his control. Then he shook his head; he was grasping at possibilities, nothing was certain. One day Marek had been wrapped in the warmth of his family. The next day….
“If you have to leave, we’ll manage.” Lynne’s voice was firm. “Besides, it wouldn’t be until next year, if it happens.” She turned to face him. “And that’s if, Eric. We don’t know the future, we have no idea what’s gonna occur.”
He nodded, for just that week a famous actress had died without warning. Life didn’t remain static, Eric knew that fully well. But now that his life was stable, he wanted it to remain that way. But didn’t everyone, or most people? Most happy people, Eric assumed, but not everyone was content. Eric leaned against his wife, who was back to admiring their baby. He had no control over the future, or himself. Taking a deep breath, Eric kissed Lynne’s cheek, then again closed his eyes. His prayers were many; for Seth, for Frannie and the twins, and for the men upstairs who were just as confused as he was.
On Friday evening the Snyders, Aherns, and two New Yorkers were treated to dinner at St. Matthew’s courtesy of Pastor Jagucki. The fare wasn’t Polish, but English; roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and an assortment of mixed vegetables with Brussels sprouts dominating. Sam asked for the recipe to the puddings, which were of the large variety, nearly six inches in diameter, and filled with delicious savory gravy. Marek said he would make copies for anyone interested and Laurie inquired as well, on Stanford’s behalf. Agatha Morris would hear this meal requested every time Stanford entertained.
Supper was devoured amid jovial chatter, most of it in English, although Marek spoke Polish to Jane. Often she was in his arms, or in Laurie’s, as those men were seated next to each other with Stanford between Eric and Sam. Lynne and Renee were on the other end, but a common thread wound between the conversations, the buzz of excitement for that evening’s activity. Jane would be watched by Mrs. Kenny, St. Matthew’s secretary, until Lynne needed to feed her baby, or if the glare from the local public grew too bothersome. Many of the paintings were nudes and while Lynne didn’t mind their inclusion, how they were accepted was beyond her control.
None from this series had ever been shown other than to family. Lynne gazed at those gathered in the church kitchen, finding all of these people were now related to her. She smiled as Marek handed Jane to Laurie while Eric and Stanford chatted with Sam. Only Renee was quiet, but Lynne knew part of that was Renee’s eagerness to hold Jane, yet Laurie would be gone on Monday. Lynne patted Renee’s leg and the women shared wide smiles. Renee felt as Lynne did, that Laurie would make a wonderful father. Yet, he seemed very happy in his role as uncle, as did the pastor. Marek never referred to himself as Jane’s uncle, but from how tenderly he spoke to her, in a tongue none of them understood, love was the underlying sentiment. It didn’t matter what Marek said to Jane; all Lynne heard was earnest affection.
Marek then apologized for the absence of dessert, but a part of that was due to the shortage of time. The show was slated to start at seven, but this group needed to be at the library by half past six. It was now five thirty and as Marek stood, gathering plates, Lynne and Renee went to their feet. “No, you ladies sit right back down. This’s the least I can do for cajoling Eric to share his incredible art with those of us unable to travel to New York City.”
Renee didn’t sit and Lynne smiled. What tussle of wills might emerge between the Polish pastor and a fiery redhead? “Pastor Jagucki, over my dead body will you clear this table alone,” Renee huffed.
Sam laughed. “Now you’ve done it, Pastor.”
Marek smiled. “Mrs. Ahern, as Christ washed his disciples’ feet, please allow me to put these dishes in the sink.”
Renee’s jaw went slack and she humbly nodded, retaking her chair. But Eric stood, rolling up his shirtsleeves. “And then as Peter said to Christ, wash all of me Lord.” Eric gathered his plate, Stanford’s, and Sam’s while Marek laughed loudly, shaking his head.
Sam joined them and quickly the table was cleared. As Sam started the dishes, Laurie handed Jane to Renee, then went to assist. Renee was placated and she leaned back in her seat, cooing to her godchild. Eric returned to the table, speaking with Stanford as Marek put away the leftovers. Lynne was struck by the altered dynamics, although that Stanford didn’t move a muscle was expected. Yet Marek had facilitated the women’s exclusion from what were their standard tasks. Lynne met his gaze and his grin was telling. Then he winked at her as Sam and Laurie seemed caught up in the washing and rinsing. Marek told them not to worry about the drying; the dishes could sit overnight. Sam wouldn’t hear of it, telling Eric to get off his duff. Then Laurie said the same to Stanford and Lynne had to bite her lip as that man truculently stood, a dishcloth thrust into his unpracticed hands.
While Renee cradled Jane, Lynne considered that evening’s activity. The paintings would be exhibited for two weeks, but Stanford and Eric had discussed a European show, possibly for next spring. Stanford had been surprised that Eric was willing to part with many of the nudes, but Stanford hadn’t spoken about it with Lynne. Yet she truly didn’t care, for other than the one of her seated with arms outstretched, those depictions were of another woman. Her life as Jane’s mother had thoroughly altered Lynne to the point that unless a particular canvas meant something to Eric, all of them could be scattered to the winds. Only Renee had asked Lynne, discreetly of course, why she felt as she did. Lynne had smiled, then clutched Renee’s hands. Those paintings had been a way for Eric to express his love and to assist Lynne in accepting those affections. Then Jane had been conceived and Lynne hadn’t been able to continue speaking, not for herself or for Renee. The women had brushed away tears and Renee had nodded, but her smile shone, for since that conversation, the Aherns had begun to seriously investigate adoption. And much to Lynne’s joy, they had also spoken to Stanford about selling the painting of the three hawks. It would be offered alongside the nudes in a brief New York exhibition before the canvases were shipped to London. Stanford had told Sam that he expected those hawks to fetch at least what the nudes would earn, a rare chance for a collector to snap up one of Eric’s earlier pieces. And that it was of hawks made it even more valuable, for among those who most coveted Eric’s work, hawks now commanded top prices.
Lynne never thought about the money. While she had teased Eric that baby clothes weren’t cheap, that wasn’t the impetus behind selling the nudes; they simply didn’t need to keep them. Lynne was privy to the idea Eric still wished to explore, but that series would be too precious to sell, and they did need to eat. Eric itched to start painting the sketch of Marek and Jane, plus he wanted to coax Laurie and Stanford into a sitting, if time permitted, before they left. Too many lovely moments of those men with Jane had convinced Eric to try to get them to pose, even for a rough sketch. Laurie wouldn’t balk, but Stanford might, yet, Lynne had found him enamored of a little girl who smeared his glasses, drooled on his shoulder, and laughed in his arms. Plus Eric had complained of not painting Renee and Jane lately, but he never mentioned Sam and Jane. Lynne wondered just how long Sam could avoid becoming one of Eric’s subjects.
She had managed for years, even as the artist’s wife. But as that artist’s wife, Lynne hadn’t been able to say no forever, and she imagined that eventually Sam would allow Eric to start a series that would never be for sale. It wouldn’t sit in their storage shed either, but be sent on a world tour, needing to be seen by as many as possible. And for that series alone, Lynne would permit the sale of the nudes. If Sam would ever give his consent, Lynne might even consider parting with her favorite canvas.
But she knew that wouldn’t be necessary; there were paintings aplenty for those interested. Eric had been prolific last year; more nudes of Lynne existed than were needed, but not all were waiting in the library. The first few would never be shown publically, the intensity of the couple’s love requiring discretion. Stanford had been pleased with those chosen for this local show, almost a teaser for what would be sent to New York and onwards. Lynne’s favorite would accompany and continue on to Europe, but only to be admired. The orchard in spring was going too and like that of Lynne on the stool, it would find its way back home, although while it would return to its place in their living room, that painting of Lynne would probably dwell in the storage building. Lynne smiled, thinking of what tonight’s reaction would entail. For years she had worked as a nurse, cloaked in a white dress, hat, and stockings. But another side of that same woman would serve notice that uniforms were often deceiving.
Then Lynne winced as Marek joked with Laurie and Stanford that they made a surprisingly adept team. Laurie laughed, but Stanford rolled his eyes. The pastor probably thought Stanford’s contempt was solely related to where he stood, at the end of an all-male line of dishwashers. Did Marek have any idea of the New Yorkers’ true connection? It hadn’t taken Lynne very long to discern it, although the Aherns hadn’t been aware until much later. But Marek was a European and while he was also a clergyman, perhaps his past permitted greater opportunities of love. Lynne thought it sad that Marek was alone, wondering if he had left a girlfriend in England, or maybe even in Poland. She had told her husband that if Marek ever revealed what had happened to his family, she didn’t want to know. All sorts of inhumane atrocities had been perpetrated, and not only to Jews; nearly a fifth of Poland’s population had been killed.
Yet, to see him now, one would never guess Marek had lost not only his immediate kin, but the entire extended clan as well. Eric had promised that he wouldn’t share those details and Lynne expected he was still ignorant, for she never saw any secrets between only her husband and their pastor. Other confidences swirled within St. Matthew’s kitchen, but not those facts.
As Jane began to squawk, Lynne smiled, then grimaced, as her milk came in. Renee handed over the baby and Lynne stood, catching Eric’s grin. Better to feed Jane now than have her crying in another hour. Lynne stepped from the kitchen as Marek said she was welcome to use the small church library, just to the left. Renee followed and turned on the light for Lynne, who immediately sat down, putting Jane right where she wanted to be. Renee didn’t stay, but soon Eric joined his family. “You need anything?” he asked.
Lynne shook her head, a great warmth coursing through her. She had fallen in love with this church mostly due to the endearing pastor, but also in how much this place meant to Eric. He smiled, kneeling beside her, stroking their daughter’s wild strip of brown hair. Her curls were unruly and the hair along the sides of her head was starting to thicken. She was trying to hitch and once she was on all fours, no longer would she be rubbing off the hair near her ears.
“We don’t have to leave until she’s ready,” Eric smiled. “Marek and Sam can take Stanford and Laurie over there. I’ll show up whenever Jane’s done.”
Lynne giggled. “Now that wouldn’t be proper.”
“Well, this isn’t New York.”
“No, I suppose not. But don’t wait on our account. Renee can bring us over in their car.”
“Absolutely not. I won’t enter that library without my favorite ladies.”
Jane moved away from Lynne’s chest, staring at her father. She smiled, then chuckled, then acted as if she was finished. Lynne tried to entice her to return to nursing, but Jane seemed to have only needed a little snack, what Eric said as he stood. “We don’t have to leave for another fifteen minutes. I’ll be back in a few, see if she’s really done.”
Lynne nodded as Jane laughed, then burped. She didn’t seem to want anymore and as Eric stepped away, Lynne stroked her daughter’s soft cheek. Jane only wanted to be held and when Eric returned, both Snyder females were ready to depart for the exhibit.
Two and a half hours later, Lynne sat with her baby in one of the library’s smaller conference rooms. Mrs. Kenny had been sent home, for now Jane was indeed hungry, and Lynne hadn’t needed to remain at Eric’s side. The crowds had been bigger than any of them had considered, traveling from larger cities a few hours away. Some lamented that none of the canvases were for sale, but Stanford had been adamant; he wanted Eric’s work to receive the maximum prices, which would only happen in New York. Yet, many people were content to finally see Eric’s output, or a smattering of his endeavors. The blue barn was the main focus, until a patron reached the collection of nudes. Then a thoughtful hush was encountered, in part for the honesty Eric had painted, and that the model was right in the room. Lynne didn’t make eye contact with anyone except her family, but she felt many gazes upon her. When Mrs. Kenny came her way, noting that Jane needed her mother, Lynne was happy to leave the makeshift gallery. That had been twenty minutes ago and Jane showed no signs of relinquishing Lynne to the waiting crowds.
Eric and Pastor Jagucki had arranged the canvases in order of completion, the blue barn and the three hawks some of the first to be seen. The nudes had been last, with many Ahern and Nolan family portraits sandwiched between, including the one of Lynne and Renee in their nursing uniforms. Eric had asked the women’s permission and both had acquiesced, but Lynne’s appearance as a starchily dressed health professional had only made the nudes more captivating, and somewhat scandalous. And shocking they were, for Eric hadn’t concealed his wife’s beauty, nor his love for her. Her portrait on the stool garnered the most attention, for she looked nothing like the woman in that white dress and cap, her brown hair hidden, a no-nonsense look on her face. In the nude, that hair flowed past her shoulders, Lynne’s smile wide and free. Her closed eyes invited the viewer to wonder what secret she was keeping, for despite her far-flung arms, a great mystery remained, and few within the crowds realized it was the couple’s infant daughter to elicit such bliss. But then, Lynne had smiled to herself, at the time she hadn’t been aware either.
When Mrs. Kenny approached Lynne, Jane wailing in the secretary’s arms, a mother had been happy to step away from furtive stares and a few outright motions of recognition. Renee had offered to accompany, but Lynne had shaken her head, wanting a few moments alone with her baby. Eric had popped in, but Lynne shooed him away too. His place was center stage, while she was happy to remain in the background.
This night had also revealed to Lynne that she wouldn’t need to attend the opening festivities when many of these canvases were displayed back east. She would probably travel with Eric, wanting to see Laurie and Stanford, and Michael Taylor too. And Agatha would likely insist that Lynne came, if only to meet Jane. Depending on when that exhibit was planned, Lynne would attend solely for family’s sake. Then she winced as Jane tugged forcefully. Perhaps they would also be introduced to Seth.
Lynne wanted to meet him, but on appropriate terms. She wanted to shake his hand with Eric at her side, both of them greeting Seth at the same time. Yet, a New York showing wouldn’t occur until early 1963 and by then Seth would have been home for a few months. Might he need Eric before then, and not as one artist advising another? Then Lynne shook her head. She couldn’t worry about that, it was out of her hands.
She smiled at her baby, who wasn’t teething yet, but soon enough. Would Lynne keep nursing if Jane started biting? Maybe that would usher in attempting for another child. Lynne giggled, then brushed soft curls from the baby’s face. Jane stared at her mother, then pulled away, a huge smile on her face. Lynne’s heart felt to bursting and she hoped that by next spring she wouldn’t be the only mother she knew.
By then Fran would have delivered the twins, but more on Lynne’s heart was Renee. Not that Renee would know this sort of connection, but while this time was precious to Lynne, it wouldn’t last forever. Time sped so quickly; here it was August already, but Lynne wasn’t ready to wean her daughter. She would let Jane dictate a sibling’s arrival, or actually God would make the decision.
Jane seemed finished and Lynne hoisted her over her shoulder, two burps released. Lynne didn’t immediately set Jane to her other breast, instead nuzzling against her daughter’s face. While she wished Renee could experience this sort of bond, perhaps Renee didn’t need this kind of connection with her offspring. Then Lynne wondered how Frannie would do with the twins; thank goodness there were enough Aherns and Canfields to assist when those babies arrived. Fran’s due date was for late September, but twins had their own timetable, and while the longer Fran carried them the better, they might come early. Daily Lynne prayed for that family, especially for a mother who must have mixed feelings about her predicament. As a Catholic, Fran had been raised with the notion that a large family was God’s blessing. But as a woman caring for all those children, the sentiments could be somewhat altered.
Lynne set Jane to her chest, but the baby showed no interest in nursing. Jane’s eyelids were starting to droop and Lynne smiled. Renee had offered to take them home, once Jane was ready for bed. All Lynne would have to do is return to where the paintings stood, then catch the attention of any of her most loved. Even Stanford would know what Lynne needed, which was to take her baby home and end this day. Lynne stood, placing Jane in the Moses basket, waiting on the floor. Lynne rearranged her blouse, then slung the baby bag over her shoulder. She gripped the basket’s handles, then left the room, heading for where crowds still gathered.
She saw Laurie first and he didn’t need more than the nod of her head. He fetched Eric, who wore a broad smile. “You two ready to leave?”
“We are. How’s it going?”
“It’s been quite a night. Stanford’s getting tired of being pestered to sell any canvases, otherwise, I think he’s quite pleased. And he’s been subtly badgering me to let him put together an impromptu show for November.”
Lynne smiled. “Well, I’ll leave all that to you gentleman. So who’s gonna take us home?”
“Renee was just here a few minutes ago, asking when you might be ready. I told her to go ask you, didn’t you see her?”
“No, just been me and the girl here.” Lynne smiled down at her sleeping baby. Then she scanned the room. “I don’t see her or Sam. Maybe they both needed the restroom.”
“Hmmm, well, why don’t you wait in the conference room and I’ll hunt them down. They can’t be far.”
Lynne nodded, then returned to where she had been just moments before. The door had been closed for her privacy, yet the light had been on, but perhaps Renee had forgotten to check on her. Lynne waited for several minutes, then Jane stirred. Lynne patted the baby’s back, speaking in soothing tones. Jane calmed and returned to sleep.
But still no one came for them. Finally Lynne stood, stepping to the door, opening it a crack. The light in the hallway was dim, but she could make out a figure, running her way. It wasn’t until the man was nearly upon her that she saw it was Pastor Jagucki. “What is it?” she said softly.
Marek was out of breath and he gripped Lynne’s hands. “Sam’s sister’s gone into labor. One of his brothers was just here and the Aherns have left for the hospital.”
Lynne shivered from Marek’s anxious tone. “Oh my God, is Fran all right?”
Marek shook his head. “Not from the sounds of it. Eric said he’d be here in a few minutes. I told him I would close up the show and Laurie and Stanford offered to stay as well. I’ll take them to your house, but I think Eric wanted to take you to….”
Lynne nodded. “Yes, I mean, at least to see if they’re….” Lynne started to cry. “Oh my goodness, she’s not due for several weeks. Oh Pastor, this isn’t good at all.”
Marek squeezed Lynne’s hands. “It might not look that way, but God is with Sam’s sister and those babies. We’ll keep them in our prayers and trust that his will is good.”
Lynne looked back, her daughter asleep in the Moses basket. She nodded absently, for the pastor was right. Yet, a mother’s heart ached for what Frannie, Louie, and their family must be considering. As Eric ran the length of the corridor, Marek released Lynne’s hands, and she stumbled into her husband’s grasp. Eric hugged her tightly, then kissed Lynne’s damp cheek. “Let’s go. I told Sam we’d get over there as soon as possible.”
All Lynne could do was cry while Marek collected the baby basket and the diaper bag. He followed the couple to their car, helping Lynne get seated while Eric put Jane in the backseat. Lynne’s eyes were teary as Eric started their vehicle, and her vision was still blurry as he backed out of the parking lot, Marek seeing them off into the dark night.
When the Snyders reached the hospital, they found a contingent milling about the main lobby. Most of those gathered were older men, but a few younger fellows recognized Eric. He spoke to two of them as Lynne cradled Jane. She caught the eyes of a few women, but she didn’t know them, probably Louie’s relatives. Eric returned to his wife, leading Lynne near the gift shop. He took a deep breath, then grasped her hand. “They don’t know much, seems Louie was down here about half an hour ago. The rest of the family’s up in the maternity ward lobby, but I think that was just too close for these folks.”
Lynne nodded. “Do you think it’s all right if we go up there?”
“Yeah, I spoke with Russell, Joan’s husband. He said that Sam told him to tell us to head up there if we wanted.” Eric stroked Jane’s head. “I’m sure it’ll be fine to take her up there.”
“Oh Eric, I don’t know. It might seem in poor….” Taste, Lynne wanted to say. “Maybe you should go up. We’ll wait down here.”
“Tell you what. I’ll run up there and see what Sam and Renee think. Won’t be more than a few minutes.”
As Lynne nodded, Eric led her to some open seats, but not far from where other ladies were speaking in somber tones. Then Eric sprinted to the elevator and within seconds he was gone.
Jane was nearly asleep and Lynne set her over her shoulder. Patting the baby’s back, Lynne crooned a soft melody, occasionally peering up, finding gentle eyes upon her. Lynne smiled back, then a woman who looked in her sixties stepped Lynne’s way. “I’m Nancy Canfield, Louie’s aunt. Is your husband the painter?”
“Yes. I’m Lynne Snyder, Eric’s wife. It’s nice to meet you.”
The woman nodded. “I’ve seen that painting of Fran and the girls, it’s beautiful.” Nancy paused, then sighed. “We really don’t know any more than Fran went into labor, but it’s so early.” She gazed at the elevator door, then back to Lynne. “Louie was down here for a while, not much for him to do, but then a nurse came for him, and we haven’t heard anything since.”
Lynne’s heart raced and she tried not to think of what could have kept Louie, and the rest of those upstairs, from coming down to inform those waiting here. Then Lynne considered Pastor’s words, that God was with Frannie and the twins. “Well, Eric went to see what he could find out. He’ll be back as soon as he speaks with Sam and Renee.”
Nancy nodded, then clasped her hands together. Then she gazed at Jane. “How old’s your baby?”
“She’s almost five months. Her name’s Jane.”
“That’s a lovely name.” Nancy’s face brightened. “Is she your first?”
Lynne nodded. “Yes. We’d been at….” That night’s activity now paled in importance. “We’d been out with Sam and Renee and I didn’t have a sitter.”
Nancy shook her head. “You don’t need to explain. She’s a doll. Jane you said?”
“Yes, Jane Renee.”
Nancy’s eyes widened, then she smiled. “Well, that’s a fine name. I don’t know Sam and Renee that much, well, I did see Sam over summer, helping out with the kids.” Nancy’s tone quieted. “Poor Fran was so sick, just not that easy when you get older.” Nancy glanced at the elevator again. “We’ve been praying for her, I hope he’s listening.”
“We’ve been praying too.”
Nancy gazed at Lynne. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Goodness knows they’re gonna need all the help they can get.”
Lynne nodded, but wasn’t sure if the woman meant now or later. Both, Lynne was certain, regardless of the outcome.
For five minutes Lynne and Nancy Canfield sat in silence while hushed murmurs floated through the dimly lit lobby. Finally the elevator opened and Lynne stood, seeing her husband and Renee step out. Renee’s face was red, her bearing shaky, and Eric supported her as soon as they were clear of the doors. Lynne met them and others joined her. “How is she?” Lynne asked.
“She’s, oh my God, she’s….” Renee burst into tears, turning to Eric, who grasped her.
“She’s alive, but it’s touch and go right now.” Eric looked at Lynne as he spoke.
“And the babies?” Nancy asked, standing beside Lynne. “How’re the twins?”
Eric blinked away tears. “She’s had two boys, but they’re very small and weak.”
Lynne gasped, as did others. In her husband’s gray eyes, Lynne saw a painful truth; those tiny infants wouldn’t survive the night. But Fran was alive and Lynne said a quick prayer, then stepped toward her husband, who was still shielding Renee. The Snyders nodded at each other, then Eric took Jane as Lynne embraced Renee, who started to sob. Lynne led her to the lobby seating as Eric followed them. The others gathered together, tears shed and more prayers offered.
Renee cried hard and Lynne eased her onto a double seat, sitting beside her. Eric sat to Lynne’s left, bobbing Jane, who had stirred from Renee’s outburst. Lynne had several questions, but didn’t wish to further upset Renee. Then Lynne gazed at Eric. When was the last time he had looked so stricken? Was Fran’s health that precarious, yet, Lynne didn’t inquire, speaking softly to Renee, who continued to wail.
Then Lynne looked up as the elevator doors opened. Sam and his sister Joan stepped out, Joan looking as disheveled as Renee. Her husband Russell came to her side and Sam walked toward the Snyders and Renee. Sorrow was evident on Sam’s face, also bitterness. Lynne wondered about that emotion as Sam sat next to them, but left one vacant seat between himself and Renee.
“Well?” Eric said.
“They still won’t say if Frannie’s gonna make it. But the priest hasn’t given her last rites, so that’s a good sign.”
“And the twins?” Lynne said slowly.
Sam glanced at Eric, then motioned to the rest. “Did you tell them?”
Eric shook his head.
“Sam, what?” Lynne said, still gripping Renee.
Sam trembled, then stared at his wife. To Lynne, the look was more of a glare, as if somehow this was Renee’s fault. “Sam, actually, you don’t need to say anything.” Lynne knew the risks and while she wished for the truth, it seemed a great chasm separated the Aherns. She squeezed Renee, but didn’t ask Sam to embrace his wife. Renee had calmed a little, but Sam wore an angry countenance.
“You guys should probably go home,” Sam said. “I’ll call you in the morning, let you know what’s going on.”
“Will you be here all night?” Eric asked.
Sam nodded. “I’m not leaving till I know Frannie’s outta danger.”
“Well, all right then. Shall we take Renee with us?”
“Yeah, do that.” Sam stood, not making eye contact with anyone but Eric. “I’d appreciate it.”
Eric stood as well, stepping near Sam. “We’ll take her to our house. Listen, please don’t hesitate to call, I mean….”
Lynne observed how Sam never looked at his wife; what had happened, Lynne wondered, for Renee never tried to meet Sam’s eyes.
“I’ll call you first thing in the morning, let you all get some sleep.” Sam shoved his hands in his pockets. “Listen, I’m gonna go talk to Joanie and Russell, then see what the rest of Louie’s relatives are gonna do. They might as well go home too, no use waiting around here anymore.”
As Sam stopped speaking, Renee jerked away from Lynne. Renee stared at her husband, then almost stood, but she was too wobbly to get up. Sam didn’t pay any attention to her, but he patted Eric’s arm, stroked Jane’s head, then walked away without any goodbye. Lynne was reminded of when Sam had visited her during Eric’s absence two years ago, that same seething fury. Only now it wasn’t directed at Lynne. This time Sam wanted to throttle Renee.
By the time the Snyders reached home, it was nearly midnight. Renee hadn’t spoken more than to thank them for the ride, but she had been surprised that they didn’t drive her to her own house. Eric wondered if Renee had been listening to her husband, not that Sam had said much to her, or had he directed any conversation Renee’s way? Lynne carried Jane inside while Eric led Renee, but she balked at going upstairs, said she would sleep on the sofa if that was all right. Eric nodded, retrieving some blankets and a pillow. The room next to where Stanford and Laurie slept was open, but for some reason, Renee preferred the couch.
Eric didn’t tarry long, making sure the doors were locked. He said a quiet goodnight to Renee, but she didn’t answer other than by the slight nod of her head. Eric took the stairs, finding the nursery door mostly closed, the guest room door at the end of the hall shut. His bedroom door was also nearly closed, only a crack of light underneath. He stepped inside, firmly shutting the door behind him. Lynne was already in bed, her Bible in hand. She looked to have been crying and Eric kicked off his shoes, then got in beside her.
Lynne began to weep and Eric moved the Bible aside, cradling his wife. He wondered what she assumed from her time as a nurse and concerning the great gulf now present between the Aherns. Eric had found them on opposite sides of the maternity ward lobby, Sam speaking with his brother Ted and Louie while Renee stood with Sam’s sister Joan and the rest of their female relatives. None of the Canfield children were present; Eric learned that Sally was keeping an eye on her siblings, but he wondered if Sally knew about the tragedy which had occurred. Probably not, unless Louie or someone else had called the teenager.
“Renee’s on the couch,” Eric said. “Jane fall asleep okay?”
Lynne nodded, then reached for a tissue on her nightstand table. She blew her nose, then looked at him. “What happened?”
Eric swallowed, but his mouth was dry. “She had a hysterectomy. They couldn’t stop the bleeding after the babies were delivered. She lost a lot of blood, that’s why her condition’s so tenuous.”
“And the twins?”
Eric sighed, tracing his wife’s damp eyes. “You probably know more about this than me, something about a twin-to-twin transfusion? Not to mention they were so premature. Sam said they were born alive, but last rites had been administered right afterwards.”
Lynne nodded. “I wondered if that was it. They must be identical then, that’s the only time it happens.”
“Yeah, Sam said something about that.” Eric cleared his throat. “Honey, something’s very wrong between him and Renee. When I got there….” Eric explained those details, then felt a lump in his throat. “I’ve never seen Sam so mad, that’s what he was, he was simply furious.”
“That’s what he was like when he visited me when you were gone. Eric, I have no idea what’s wrong between them, but it’s serious.”
Eric nodded. “Well, we’ll pray and try to facilitate as best as we can. Maybe she said something or….”
Eric stopped speaking due to the horror on his wife’s face. “Lynne, my God, what is it?”
“Oh Eric, that day they came over and you were showing off the back garden. Renee wanted to tell me something, but she prefaced it with she hoped I wouldn’t hate her, something about Fran and the twins. Oh my lord, I wonder if she was gonna say….”
Lynne’s tears restarted and Eric pulled her close in part to muffle the sound, which was as painful as Renee’s deep sobs shed in the hospital’s lobby. He also didn’t wish her to say another word, which would have been impossible for how hard Lynne wept. She didn’t need to tell Eric what she thought, for Eric had seen that truth when he’d painted Renee alongside Lynne and Jane earlier that summer. Eric didn’t judge Renee, for he and Lynne had gently spoken about the same: why again was Fran pregnant? But now the worst had occurred, not that Renee’s feelings were the cause. It was no one’s fault that the babies had been born so early, or so ill. Even if the transfusion hadn’t happened, they were tiny infants, well, one was smaller than the other. But even the larger twin was far too little to survive. Eric had caught a few pertinent facts; born at just over thirty-two weeks gestation, they had weighed less than six pounds combined, and weren’t expected to live through the night. Eric had seen the priest, not from St. Anne’s, but from the Canfields’ local parish. He’d been comforting various family members, but neither Sam nor Renee had been the subject of his consolation. Eric then wondered about Louie; when had he been told of his wife’s condition? Eric was grateful to have shared in Jane’s birth, but that rarely occurred. Men were expected to remain in the waiting room, then the good news was brought to them by a nurse. Louie had been in the downstairs lobby for a while, did he not realize how serious was Fran’s condition?
Maybe he’d felt like Renee, or maybe his older relatives had needed his presence. Not that Louie could have done anything for Fran, and now there would be no more concerns about further Canfield offspring. Hopefully Fran would pull through with no lasting physical debilitation. Her heart, however, would take ages to heal.
Lynne had calmed and she slowly pulled from Eric’s grasp. They stared at each other, similar thoughts coursing through their minds. Eric kissed her softly, then as she laid down, he took back the bedding, removing his clothes. He left on his briefs in case Jane stirred or Renee needed something, or if Sam did call. But Eric didn’t expect to hear from Sam for several hours, unless Fran’s condition took a severe turn. It would take Samuel that long to feel like speaking, not that he was angry with the Snyders, only that Sam’s wife was in this house. And for now, Sam wanted nothing to do with Renee.
Eric couldn’t change that, but he was exhausted, and his bed was warm. He snuggled against Lynne, who wrapped her arms around him. The couple wasn’t intimate, but they held hands as Eric began The Lord’s Prayer. He spoke for them both, but Lynne’s quiet Amen made Eric blink away stray tears. Then they turned on their left sides, more prayers leading both into unsettled slumber.
On a warm August afternoon, Eric and Lynne stood near the back of mourners as one small coffin was lowered into the ground. Family surrounded Louie, who stood among his older children, as Simon and Andrew Canfield were laid to rest. Fran was still in the hospital, but the rest of the Canfields and Aherns had assembled, except for Frannie’s mother. Marjorie Ahern had spent most of her days at her daughter’s bedside and this one was no different. The Snyders had left Jane at St. Matthew’s in Mrs. Kenny’s care, wanting to pay their respects to the Canfield family as well as act as a buffer for Sam and Renee.
That Ahern couple stood side by side, but unlike most others, they didn’t hold hands or lean on one another. Sam’s arms hung limply while Renee gripped her rosary, both dressed in black, as was just about everyone in attendance. Eric clutched Lynne as she wept. A week after the twins had been born, then passed away, the Snyders had experienced a gamut of emotions, but not all were due to Fran and Louie’s tragic loss. Sam had collected his wife from the Snyders late on Saturday afternoon, but his face still sported anger, although it was muted. Eric felt that was due to Stanford and Laurie’s presence. If the New Yorkers hadn’t been there, Eric wouldn’t have been surprised if Sam verbally attacked his wife.
Eric had spent much of that week trying to talk to Sam while Lynne attempted to soothe Renee. Neither Snyder was successful, for while the Aherns stood together, their hearts were far apart. Normally Sam wasn’t overtly demonstrative, but that day he didn’t even try to console his wife, who cried throughout the brief funeral. The afternoon was pleasant and Eric had learned that Louie hadn’t wanted a full mass in their church. He needed sunshine and a soft breeze alongside the warmth of his family. Eric had spoken to Sam’s sister Joan, as she, Russell and their three young daughters arrived at the same time as the Snyders. Joan was easy to talk to and she hadn’t minced words, pulling Eric aside and asking if he had managed to get through to Sam.
Perhaps the Snyders and McCampbells were the only ones to realize the turmoil between Sam and Renee. The rest were too shocked by the awful loss of twin sons, although their deaths were considered as God’s will. That Frannie would eventually be all right was a bigger blessing, in that Louie wasn’t also mourning his wife or seven children their mother. The priest had committed Simon and Andrew’s bodies to the ground, their brief lives God’s gift, although the priest didn’t try to give an explanation. Eric had spoken to Pastor Jagucki during the week, so had Lynne. They didn’t tell Marek about the Aherns, only seeking spiritual support at a time of immense sorrow. Marek had assuaged their hearts in his kind but honest words; many of God’s actions were far beyond human comprehension. The babies were safe with Christ and soon their mother would return to the bosom of her family.
As white roses were gently tossed to the ground, Eric considered Stanford and Laurie’s reactions; neither man had before encountered such heartbreak. Laurie felt for Louie, with whom he had spoken at Easter, while Stanford was awed by Fran’s condition, a mother of many, but now two of her children were dead. Eric hadn’t expected Stanford to be so shaken, but he had grown teary as Eric broke the news, then left the kitchen, spending an hour upstairs. Part of that time Laurie had accompanied, but when Laurie returned alone, Eric had only nodded. Perhaps these were the first children’s deaths Stanford had known, and maybe they were exacerbated by his mother’s ill health or Seth’s dubious recovery. Until the New Yorkers left on Monday, Stanford was particularly subdued, and he held Jane at every opportunity. Neither man had noticed the frost between the Aherns, for which Eric had been relieved, one fewer issue that required an explanation.
Other than Joan and Russell, maybe no one else saw the level of discord between Sam and Renee. Larger sorrows loomed, although Eric was exceedingly grateful that Fran would be all right. Both Eric and Lynne had expressed their hesitant but truthful relief that Fran and Louie wouldn’t have to consider another pregnancy, although who were they to say that another baby would be a burden. Eric had no doubt that notion was the cause of friction between the Aherns, but Eric had never seen Sam so incensed. Lynne had, so he took her word that a typically jovial man could so easily lose his even temper. Then Eric tutted himself; who was he to judge anyone? Perhaps this was tied into Sam’s tour overseas, or maybe Sam felt guilty what with having just decided to adopt. Fran and Louie had lost twin sons and would never have another child. Maybe it was easier for Sam to shun his wife than accept his own feelings.
That’s what Sam had done two years ago when Eric was gone. Sam had blamed Lynne and even after Eric returned, Sam had taken time to let Lynne back into his heart. It wasn’t until Sam watched Eric change that he no longer thought Lynne was…. Eric kissed his wife’s damp cheek, then led her several yards from where related clans comforted each other. As Lynne burrowed against Eric’s chest, he spied Renee being calmed by Joan as Sam sought out others. While Lynne struggled to stem her tears, the Aherns drifted further apart until they stood on the opposite fringes of the entire group.
A reception was being hosted at the Canfields’ church, but Eric and Lynne had decided to forgo that event. Jane was part of the reason, but in truth, the Snyders were there solely as acquaintances of the Canfields. Eric wondered if Sam and Renee would attend, probably, Eric thought, more from their expected presence. But maybe they would beg off, not wishing to hide their dispute. Eric didn’t want to know and softly he stroked his wife’s hair. “Shall we go?” he whispered.
Lynne looked up, then gazed to where Louie stood with his parents and children. “Don’t you wanna say goodbye?”
“I don’t think we’ll be missed. You need some mother-daughter time.”
Lynne nodded, then sighed, scanning the assembly. “Where are Renee and Sam?”
Eric motioned to one side of the gathering, then to the other. “Honey, let’s go.”
Lynne didn’t answer, but she followed Eric’s lead. Slowly they walked to their car and Eric helped his wife into her seat. As he stepped to his door, he glanced toward where most remained. Joan McCampbell motioned for him and Eric nodded. Then he opened his door. “Lynne, I’ll be right back. Joan wants to talk to me.”
“Give her my love.”
“I’ll do that.” Eric shut the door, then headed toward Joan. They met a few feet from where both had parked. Joan’s cheeks were damp, her eyes red. She looked a little like Sam, but her blue irises weren’t as bright. Short blonde hair blew around her face and she tucked some strays behind her ears. “Are you coming to the reception?” she asked.
“No, Lynne needs to feed Jane. Please give Louie our love.”
Joan nodded, grasping Eric’s hand. “Of course. Um, Eric, can I ask you something?”
Joan released Eric’s hand, looking back to the group. Then she gazed at Eric. “I just tried talking to Sam, but he’s being pretty obstinate right now. We’re gonna take Renee with us, he said he was driving Louie and Fran’s kids home. I don’t know if he’ll come back for Renee, but Russ and I can get her home.”
Eric sighed. “I wish there was something I could say to him, I mean….”
“He’s usually not so darn, oh goodness, intractable.” Again Joan glanced back, shaking her head. Then she looked at Eric’s car. “Listen, you go, I’m sure that baby’s crying for her mother.” Joan gave a small smile. “He’ll get over it, just like he did when he came back from Korea. Sometimes though he has that Irish temper, even if we’re not all that Irish.” Then she sighed. “Thank you, both of you, for being here today. Fran talks about you and your wife quite often. I know she’s heartbroken right now, but between us….”
Joan looked around, then whispered in Eric’s ear. He nodded, then sighed. “We’ll be praying for everyone. If Renee doesn’t wanna go straight home, drop her off at our place. We don’t have any plans.”
“Thank you. We might do that if Sam’s still being a….” Joan stopped herself, then shook her head. “He’s my big brother, but sometimes he’s a pain in the neck.”
Eric wore a wry grin. “Well again, we’ll be home all day.”
“Maybe we’ll see you later then.” She gripped Eric’s hand, then let go. Joan waved at Lynne, then turned back toward the large contingent of mourners. Eric tried looking for Sam, then for Renee. He did find them, but they remained far apart.
The Snyders didn’t see either Ahern that afternoon. On Sunday at St. Matthew’s, only Marek knew what had happened and he asked about the Canfields and the Aherns. Eric and Lynne didn’t know much, although Joan had called right as they were stepping out for church; Fran would be in the hospital for another week, but had noted visitors were welcome. Eric and Lynne had talked about it on the drive; perhaps Lynne would go alone, leaving Jane at home with her father. Not that Eric didn’t want to see Fran, but in these early days of grieving, it might be easier on Fran to chat with another woman.
The Snyders brought this up with their pastor while standing in front of St. Matthew’s after the last parishioners had left. Marek told them to give Mrs. Canfield his best and that she and her family were in his prayers. He also offered that if the couple wished to visit Mrs. Canfield together, he would be happy to keep an eye on Jane. Eric nodded, shaking Marek’s hand, and that he would let the pastor know.
On the way home, Eric considered stopping by the Aherns, but Jane started to fuss. Instead he drove his family back to their own house, but to their surprise, Sam’s car was parked in front of the gate. The vehicle was empty and as Eric pulled into their driveway, killing the engine, he quickly glanced at Lynne, who seemed just as astonished. Which Ahern was waiting behind the wall, probably seated at the patio table?
Lynne collected Jane from the back seat, the baby having fallen asleep. But as soon as she realized the ride was over, she began to cry. Lynne quickly walked to the gate, then slipped inside. Eric was right behind them, but Lynne didn’t go around the house to learn the identity of their visitor. She let herself in through the kitchen door, closing it behind her.
Eric kept walking, rounding the side of the house. Sam was seated facing the garden, but he turned around as Eric came near. Sam nodded, then went back to staring at broken sod.
“Good afternoon.” Eric pulled up the nearest chair and sat beside Sam. Loosening his tie, Eric undid the top buttons of his dress shirt. “How long you been here?”
“Just a few minutes. I dropped Renee off at home, said I needed some air. Didn’t know where else to go though, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind at all. Although Jane’s getting fed first, hope that’s okay.”
Gazing at Eric, Sam looked a bit sheepish. “Oh, I didn’t mean to imply, I mean….”
“Have you had any lunch?”
“Well, neither have I, or Lynne. As soon as Jane’s full, I’m sure we can rectify that situation.”
Sam sighed, then stood. “Look, I didn’t mean to intrude. Tell Lynne I said….”
Eric was on his feet. “I’ll let you tell her.”
Sam looked around, but it was still the two of them. “No Eric, really, I should be going and….”
Eric grasped Sam’s left shoulder. “Where will you go?”
The words were said slowly and deliberately. Sam shrugged, then shook his head. “Hell, I have no idea.”
“All right then. Park your behind Ahern while I’ll rustle up some grub.”
Eric waited until Sam retook his seat. Then Eric headed back around to the front of the house, calling to his wife that Sam was staying for lunch.
Jane was in a pleasant humor, but that didn’t stir her uncle to a similar mood. They ate outside, which Lynne had thought would be better than being cooped inside. Nor did she again want to experience Sam’s anger within her kitchen.
While his tone wasn’t harsh, his words were hollow, and he didn’t ask to hold his goddaughter. Even in bright sunshine Lynne felt a chill, just as she had when Sam came to see her on that rainy, cold day in 1960. This time, disbelief didn’t foster his wrath; it was all too clear what had driven a wedge between him and Renee.
Yet, he didn’t speak about his wife, only that he’d spent much of yesterday evening with Frannie, who as Joan said, was feeling a little better, and that she would probably appreciate a friendly face. Sam looked at Lynne when he spoke, the only time he met Lynne’s gaze. Eric noted that Joan had said the same and Sam looked surprised. “Joanie called here?”
Lynne had never heard Sam use that nickname, but she kept quiet as Eric nodded. “Yeah, right before we left for church. She mentioned that Fran was improving and that she’d appreciate a visitor. Said she was still gonna be there another week.”
Sam sighed, then slumped in his chair. “Yeah, God, we’re lucky she’s alive. She lost so much blood and….”
Lynne didn’t flinch from that detail and Jane had no idea of what her uncle revealed. Yet Sam paused like he’d been indiscreet. Then he sighed again. “Shit, lucky isn’t even the way to describe it. She nearly died damnit! But thank God he let us keep her.”
A mother didn’t recoil then either, but Sam immediately glanced at Lynne. “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to swear in front of the baby.”
“It’s all right. She has no idea what we’re saying.” Lynne reached for Sam’s hand, but he hesitated. Then he clutched hers, nodding his head.
“How was she last night?” Eric asked.
Sam let go of Lynne, then looked at Eric. “Weak, tired. She, uh, talked about, well, about….”
“You can say it.” Lynne bobbed Jane in her arms. “She talked about the boys, didn’t she?”
It was easier for Lynne to say boys instead of babies, and maybe that was also good for Sam, who nodded, wiping his eyes. “Yeah, although I have no idea how she can talk about them so soon after, after….” He used his napkin to blow his nose, then took a deep breath. “She says they’re with Mary, that Mary’s looking after them, so what more could she want? When she said that I nearly choked, I mean, she just lost them a week ago, and yet she wasn’t sad, I mean, she wasn’t crying. She was, God, I’ve never seen her so, so….”
“So what?” Eric said softly.
Sam stood, then gripped the back of his chair. “So convinced.” Then he stared at Lynne. He didn’t speak, but she knew his thoughts. Frannie had been as certain of her sons’ whereabouts as Lynne had been about Eric’s two and a half years before. Not that Lynne knew exactly where he was, but that he was a bird, which at the time Sam couldn’t possibly comprehend.
“Well, I’m sure that’s where they are too.” Eric kept his voice even. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for her, wishing they were in her arms, but Sam, your sister’s an amazing woman. She has an incredible heart and very strong faith. I knew that as soon as I started sketching her, what with a thirteen-year-old at one side and a baby at the other. God’s asked her and Louie to bear a great sorrow, but he won’t burden them with more than they can take.”
Sam glared at Eric, then Jane began to squawk. Lynne watched how Sam longed to say something harsh, yet Jane’s increasing wails lessened Sam’s irritation, and he sat down as Lynne stood, trying to soothe the baby. Lynne didn’t step toward Sam, staying near Eric, who reached over for Sam’s hand.
“I told Lynne that she should go see Fran, not sure if she’ll get around to it tomorrow, maybe on Tuesday.” Eric glanced at his wife, then he looked at Sam. “What’s Renee’s schedule this week?”
“What?” Sam asked.
“Your wife, when’s she working this week? Maybe she and Lynne could go together.”
Sam seemed stumped by Eric’s question. “I, uh, have no idea when she’s busy.”
Lynne’s heart lurched, for Sam knew Renee’s schedule sometimes better than Renee did. As Jane quieted, Lynne excused herself, not wishing to know any further just how divided the Aherns had become.
An hour later Eric returned to the house alone. He carried the remnants of lunch, which Lynne took from his hands, placing the dishes in the sink. Eric caressed her cheek, then kissed her. Then he smiled. “Jane asleep?”
Lynne nodded. “Sam leave?”
“Just a few minutes ago. Renee call?”
“No, but I called her. She sounded awful, but was glad to know where he was. Did he say anything?”
Eric shook his head, then led his wife to the kitchen table. Both sat down, gripping each other’s hands. “He’s furious with her, he finally admitted that, but what he can’t yet say is that he, well, not that he agreed with Renee, but that for whatever reason, this is what God had in mind.” Eric paused, then lifted Lynne’s hands, kissing her knuckles. “He did say they’re not gonna adopt, said it pretty bluntly.”
“Yeah, he was in quite a mood. So I asked if he still wanted Stanford to sell their painting.”
“Oh Eric, did you really?”
“Yes I did. If he’s gonna be so….” Eric shook his head, then released Lynne’s hands. “Joan said it best, intractable. I surprised him though, I don’t think he’d even thought about those hawks. He was flummoxed for a minute, then looked right at me and told me to tell Stanford that it’s no longer for sale. I just nodded, maybe he thought I was gonna try to talk him out of it, but that’s something only he and Renee can decide.”
“You mean Sam alone. Oh, no wonder she sounded so distraught, oh Eric, what’re we gonna do?”
Tenderly Eric grasped his wife’s hands. “The only thing we can.” He gazed around the room, focusing on the older part of the kitchen. “I can see him standing in here, giving you hell. He does have a tough streak, probably what saved his life in Korea, his life and his sanity. But this’s something only he and Renee and Christ can work through. But we’ll do our small part and leave the rest in God’s hands.” Eric squeezed Lynne’s fingers. “I came back to you two times under very perilous circumstances. I gotta believe that Sam and Renee will….”
Lynne burst into tears. Eric stood, then knelt beside her, wondering how she had lasted all those cold weeks, then throughout a long summer and autumn. Yes, she had support for the very first time, but no faith, or merely a burgeoning spark. And in this very room, Sam Ahern had basically called her a liar, wordlessly accusing her of mayhem. Sam’s heart had been softened, he hadn’t remained angry with Lynne forever. While soothing his wife, Eric had to believe that Renee would eventually be on the receiving end of Sam’s mercy. But for how long, Eric wondered, would Sam continue to reproach himself?
Fran returned to the care of her family, her steps slow, her heart weary. Only to her mother and Louie did she reveal the depth of her sorrows, for to Fran’s surprise, Louie was as disconsolate as she. He hadn’t wanted more children and through summer his mood was often that of a frustrated and overburdened father. Yet, perhaps those feelings had been to shield himself from the reality of two more offspring, twins of all things. And maybe, Fran told only her mom, that the babies had been sons, identical even, had reached into Louie far more deeply than he had imagined was possible. All of Fran’s family was touched by this loss, from nearly each of her children to her siblings and their clans. Only little Helene was unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy, but the two and a half year old was very happy for her mother’s return. Fran spoke about that with her mom, also with Lynne Snyder, when she visited. Helene would never know the pain the rest suffered and for that Fran was grateful.
The first time Lynne went to see Fran alone was also the last time Lynne went by herself. That was while Fran was still in the hospital, and while Jane wouldn’t have been allowed into Fran’s room, Fran insisted that when she was home for Lynne to call and to bring the baby with her. At first Lynne had hesitated, but Fran was insistent, and two weeks later, Lynne and Jane spent an afternoon at the Canfields, Helene the only child at home. The rest, even little Johnny, were in school, and Fran seemed much better to Lynne, her coloring healthy, her steps nearly to her usual pace. It had been almost a month and Fran was mostly recovered, what she said to Lynne as Helene jabbered at Jane. The mothers sat in Fran’s kitchen, Helene in her high chair, Jane in Fran’s arms. When the Snyders arrived, Fran had wept only because Jane was crying, needing to nurse. But quickly Fran’s tears dried as Jane settled at her mother’s bosom. Lynne had felt an initial awkwardness, but it dissipated quickly, for Fran seemed to harbor no resentment towards Lynne, even grasping Lynne’s free hand while Jane settled. The women shared tender gazes, for Fran knew it had taken Lynne and Eric years to conceive, although the reason for that hardship was to Fran yet another mystery.
After Jane was finished, Fran spoke about that element of faith, how God’s works were often too much for humans to ponder. Then she spoke honestly, that at times she was relieved the babies were with Christ, for she had seen them, only for moments, and they had looked nothing like her other newborns. They had appeared fleeting, then Fran admitted to Lynne she had felt that way during most of her pregnancy. That particular confinement had carried an ominous sensation as soon as it had been confirmed by her doctor. Not that Fran had expected this outcome, but having been back in her own domain now for a number of days, even with most of the kids at school, Fran had wondered what sort of toll caring for two more offspring would have exacted, especially babies that would have been so frail.
Simon had been born first, and was the smaller of the two. Andrew had been the recipient twin of the transfusion, and while nearly double Simon’s size, Andrew’s heart had been weakened by the strain of receiving so much placental blood. Even if Fran had gone to term, neither baby would have survived, in fact they probably would have been stillborn. Lynne knew these details, yet she didn’t deter Fran from speaking. Fran needed to share these facts verbally and only with a select few could she be so forthright. She had talked to her mother and had shared a little with Louie. But with Lynne, who had been a nurse, Fran could open her heart to the more disturbing pieces of her sons’ brief lives. For some reason they had been born, but their existences weren’t destined for a corporeal significance. That tenant had helped Fran to accept their deaths, which she said through tears. Perhaps she would never know why Simon and Andrew had rested in her womb, then breathed for only minutes. But some aspects of this life, Fran sighed, wiping her cheeks, were only relevant to God.
Fran kissed Jane’s head, then she smiled at Lynne. “I remember when Sam told me you were expecting. I was so happy for you and your husband. I remember the day I met him, how kind he was, and how, well, when he asked to sketch me and Helene….” Fran chuckled, then stroked her daughter’s face. “I could see in his eyes what a good father he’d make, then when Sam told me that you couldn’t have children, I was so sorry for you both. I’ve been praying for you since then and well, Jane’s such a beauty.” Fran hugged her, then smiled. “Thank you for bringing her today. It really does help. Maybe some people might not understand, but I think you do.”
Lynne nodded, although a part of her felt slight remorse, for she hadn’t been as open-hearted when working. Renee had no trouble being called to the maternity ward, but Lynne had only gone when absolutely necessary. Then Lynne inwardly cringed; was Renee’s temperament still that magnanimous now that Sam had decided they weren’t going to adopt? Not that Sam and Renee were on speaking terms; the frost from August hadn’t abated in September, and there seemed no end in sight. Lynne wasn’t sure if Fran knew the extent of her brother and sister-in-law’s troubles, but Joan called the Snyders every few days, hoping for better news. Neither Eric nor Lynne had any to give her.
The Aherns had pulled away from each other, and from their friends, but Jane seemed unaware, for which Lynne was grateful. Jane had become fond of Mrs. Kenny and a few other older ladies at St. Matthew’s who admired her growing hair, bright smile, and teasing laughter. She was nearly six months old and if Fran set her on the floor, Jane would be up on all fours, peering around the room as if she could speed away. She couldn’t quite crawl, but Eric said it would happen any day. He never added how unfortunate it was that Sam and Renee would miss it.
Lynne understood their absences; Sam didn’t want to be cajoled into forgiving his wife and Renee would cry in Jane’s presence for the child she and Sam no longer would adopt. Stanford had been greatly surprised that Sam didn’t want to sell their painting, but Eric hadn’t said more than the Aherns had changed their minds. Only Sam had become obstinate, both Snyders knew, but they too were taken aback at the depth of his antagonism. Lynne wasn’t sure if other Ahern siblings were aware besides Joan, and Lynne hoped Fran had no idea.
It wasn’t Fran’s fault, just as it wasn’t Renee’s. Lynne grasped that some things occurred without a single shred of purpose, yet later a few reasons were evident. Jane happily babbled in Fran’s arms and Lynne blinked away tears, both for the joy of her daughter and for the loss of Fran’s sons.
“She’s gotten so big since I saw her last,” Fran said. “Is she crawling yet?”
“Nearly. Eric keeps saying it’s gonna be any day now.”
“I bet she’ll be walking early. Most of mine were, it happens before you expect it.”
Lynne nodded, hearing a hint of wistfulness in Fran’s tone. “I remember Renee and Sam saying how fast Helene had grown. I suppose it all happens before we’re ready for it.”
Lynne spoke carefully, not wishing to insinuate what Fran would miss, and also not wishing to note any more about the Aherns. Yet, as Fran stood and nodded, then handed Jane back to her mother, Lynne wondered if Fran was alert to other issues. Fran released Helene from the high chair, then set her on the floor. Helene ran to where Lynne sat, the toddler trying to reach for Jane. “Baby, baby,” Helene said.
“Sally mopped a few days ago, the floor’s not too dirty.” Fran’s tone was shaky, then she gazed at Lynne. “Or we could go in the living room. But I’ll tell you, Helene will try to get Jane moving.”
“Let’s go in the living room,” Lynne said. “More comfortable chairs in there.”
Fran smiled. “That sounds good to me.” She led the way as Helene remained at Lynne’s side, trying to reach for a playmate.
That evening, Jane wobbled on her knees as she put one hand in front of the other, then another, followed by a few more. She crept two feet, then crashed onto her belly, crying profusely. Yet parents were thrilled for her attempt, although Fran had warned Lynne that once Jane realized she could get away, there was no going back. Lynne had shared those sentiments with Eric and now it was true, for as soon as Jane was placated, she wanted out of her parents’ arms and back on the floor. For half an hour she crept, crashed, cried, then crept again. She fell asleep at Lynne’s bosom, not finishing her last nursing of the day.
It was only seven thirty, but they wouldn’t call Stanford and Laurie that night, although Eric said he would try them first thing in the morning, if only to tell Agatha the news. Lynne knew who else would be thrilled to hear about Jane’s achievement, but to call the Aherns would be equally hurtful, or at least Renee would weep. Lynne wasn’t sure how Sam would respond, for now her feelings toward him were back to over two years ago when she was sure he would hate her forever. Her fears hadn’t been borne out, yet Lynne had no idea about that man. Fran hadn’t spoken overtly about her brother and Renee, but she seemed mindful of the chasm, for she said she hoped they changed their minds about adoption, her tone as uncertain as how Lynne felt. Lynne hadn’t added her opinion, for she truly had no sense of how Sam and Renee would solve this problem, and what would occur if and when they did.
Eric had assumed Sam would get over it, but weeks had passed with no notion of reconciliation in sight. Eric had never seen Sam in this state, but Lynne’s memories were as if only yesterday he had dripped water on her kitchen floor, his eyes lifeless, his temper fiery. She had run into him a few times at the grocery store and while he was outwardly cordial, Lynne ached to grasp his hand, offer a gentle touch. Sam needed a very tender balm on his soul, but he wasn’t allowing anyone to provide that healing. Not even Eric had made any headway, and while the men’s friendship wasn’t as lengthy as some Sam shared, it was profound. Still, Sam avoided all of the Snyders. Yet, how did he live day after day in the same house with his wife?
Lynne couldn’t consider that, too painful. It was actually easier thinking of her conversation with Fran, which Lynne recounted to Eric, although not every detail. He was glad to hear she was feeling better and that Jane had brightened her day. And Helene’s, Eric smiled, as the couple snuggled on the sofa. Then Eric sighed. “Do you think she knows about Sam and Renee?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t seem to wanna talk about it. She has enough on her plate.”
“That she does. I suppose it’s better now that the kids are in school, well most of the kids.”
“I agree. And probably good for the kids too. I think routine is important, helps to keep one from dwelling too much on unpleasantness.”
Routine had saved Lynne’s sanity when Eric was gone, but his departures weren’t like what Fran and Louie had suffered. And was it harder on Renee, what with Sam so close, yet a million miles away? Lynne took a deep breath, but it felt caught in her chest. She choked and Eric roughly sat her up, then patted her back. “Honey, you okay?”
She nodded, inhaling, then exhaling, but the heaviness remained. “Eric, this can’t go on for much longer. It was one thing when you were gone. But I just can’t imagine what she’s feeling, what with him in that house but not giving her the time of day.”
“I know. I went over there today, but no one was home. The house looked different, so lonely.” Eric sighed, then kissed Lynne’s head. “I thought about driving over to the VA hospital, I knew that’s where he was since you were at Fran’s. But instead I drove home, talked to Stanford. He said all I had to do was give the word and he could set up a November show.”
“Really? Why didn’t you tell me when I got home?”
“Because it just doesn’t seem right.” Eric sighed. “Between the Canfields’ loss and this with Sam and Renee, I just don’t feel, oh hell.”
Lynne turned to face him. “Honey, what?”
Eric stroked her cheek, then closed his eyes. When he opened them, Lynne gasped, for a deep sadness edged his gray irises. “I’m sure Seth’ll be home by then and to be honest I’m a little wary of meeting him. I wanna meet him, don’t get me wrong, but not if he’s….”
Lynne nodded. “I understand. Is that all?”
Eric smiled wryly, then shook his head. “It’s funny, because the show here started so well, but after that first night, I couldn’t feel the usual joy. Most of that was from, well, you know. But a little of it was, and this makes me cringe even saying it, but….”
He paused, then gripped Lynne’s hands. “Eric, what? You can tell me anything.”
He nodded, then spoke. “I’ve gotten used to paintings selling out.” He clucked, then sighed. “I was really looking forward to whatever the hawks went for, I wanted Sam and Renee to make a bundle off that painting, maybe she could quit work altogether. Now it’s like, so what? I never cared what the nudes would earn, you know that never matters to me. And now that they’re not thinking about having a family….” He slumped against the back of the sofa. “I know you’ve seen him like this and I’m sure Renee has too, but never was she the reason for his anger, or should I say the one he’s taking it out on. He’s pissed, okay. But he won’t talk to me, he won’t even acknowledge that he’s so damn mad. Maybe if I suddenly turned into a hawk and flew over to his house….”
Lynne smiled, then burst into a fit of giggles. “That might be what it’ll take. Too bad you can’t just will yourself into being a bird.”
Eric grinned, then chuckled. “For Sam and Renee, I’d do it. But I don’t wanna do it for Seth and that’s the main reason I don’t wanna schedule a show in New York. If the paintings could just be sent straight to London, great! Let them traipse all across Europe. The one of Marek and Jane is just about set, and believe me, I’ve been glad to have that to work on. I’ll tell you honey, other than painting you and Jane, I don’t know what I wanna work on next. I wish I could’ve sketched Stan and Laurie.”
“You could do that in New York.”
Eric nodded, then shook his head. “No, they’d have to be here, in front of some rather fruit-laden boysenberry vines.” Eric smiled. “But that’s for next summer. God Lynne, I’m almost feeling like I did when I came back in the spring of ‘62, like I just don’t have it in me right now.”
“Well, it’s been a pretty hard time lately.”
“Yeah, but not as bad for us as for others.”
Lynne set her palm against Eric’s cheek. “No, but you’re very intuitive. The painting of Marek and Jane is, oh honey, that piece says more about Marek than he’s told you. Does he know it’s finished?”
Eric nodded. “After I left the Aherns, I drove over to St. Matthew’s. I didn’t wanna come back here, I knew you’d still be at the Canfields. He asked how the work was going and I said I had a new painting to show him. He seemed excited to see it, also a little….” Eric leaned forward, setting a gentle kiss on his wife’s lips. “He’s a little wary, because now he’s seen….”
“He knows what you’re capable of. That’s why Sam’s avoiding you, you know.”
“It is. Sam knows if he spends too much time with you, he’ll have to face what’s really bothering him. And maybe a chunk of it’s Renee, although that’s qualified, because Sam must realize how guilty she feels, he’s not an ogre. But Eric, how long have you been hinting about painting his portrait and he never says yes. Pastor did, without hesitation, and that man’s past, oh my goodness.” Lynne shivered. “But then, maybe it’s different being a victim of war and being a perpetrator of sorts. Not that Sam was an aggressor, but he fought, he enlisted even. We have no idea what he was driven to do over there just to survive. Yet, he chose to serve, he volunteered. He could do that then, but there’s no way he can sit for you now, not even holding his goddaughter. Or maybe especially not with Jane in his arms.”
Eric nodded. Lynne expected him to speak, yet he gazed off, not catching her eyes.
“Honey, Eric, what is it?”
“Oh, just something you said, that Sam enlisted. That Marek was a victim, although I never see him that way. Maybe because it’s been twenty years, he said that today, I don’t know how it came up. Twenty years ago his family was….”
Now Eric paused due to Lynne’s tremors. He said nothing more, grasping her close, quietly crooning her name. Lynne tried not to cry, but many sorrows lingered. She wept softly for Eric’s touch was soothing, as were his words, that he loved her and that God was in control. Those sentiments eased her aching heart, although she wondered how many scars other hearts still carried.
One week later, President Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University announcing that by the end of the decade the United States would put a man on the moon. Eric and Lynne rarely watched television, but by chance they had turned it on that evening, hearing Kennedy’s proclamation, what Eric called it. Neither Snyder was particularly political, although Lynne had voted for Kennedy. Eric said he would have had he been home, and they joked about their lack of involvement in the world around them. Eric focused on art, Lynne on homemaking, but even those pastimes had been curtailed since the deaths of the Canfield twins and the terrible rift between the Aherns.
The next day, Eric called Stanford, telling his dealer that if a November show was scheduled, Eric wouldn’t argue, but he wouldn’t attend either. Stanford threatened to put Agatha on the telephone, which made Eric smile, but not even for her would Eric travel east. Yet, the paintings could, all those which had been shown there in town, even the blue barn and the three hawks. Eric had bumped into Sam at the grocery store two days before and Sam had brought it up. Eric wasn’t sure how to take Sam’s query; Sam was implicit that the hawks weren’t for sale, but that if Eric wanted to send them to Europe, that was fine. Sam seemed surprised that Eric wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and their conversation ended awkwardly. But that made Eric take stock; he’d received yet another letter from the other side of the Atlantic, this time from a Finnish museum, which would love to display his paintings on the proposed European tour.
Yet, Eric’s heart wasn’t into traveling to attend their send-off party, how Stanford had originally coined it months ago. Now Stanford was more reverential, although small glee had crept into his tone, for the nudes would still be sold. Eric reminded Stanford that no matter how much they went for, the buyers had to agree that those paintings would be permitted into the European show, and Stanford agreed, noting that he had secured the inclusion of several of Eric’s older canvases. The exhibition would be retrospective in nature, even if it was the first time Eric’s work would be seen outside of America.
Then Stanford had casually asked about Sam and Renee’s paintings. Eric had sighed, that yes, they would be included, but that no, the hawks weren’t for sale. Stanford hadn’t questioned him, calmly replying that he was pleased the blue barn would again be displayed. Eric didn’t ask about Seth and Stanford didn’t volunteer anything. The call ended with Eric slightly more at peace, at least in not having to go east. But there in town, Eric knew little respite. He and Lynne hadn’t said anything to Marek about the Aherns, but now Eric wondered if perhaps he should at least ask the pastor for advice. Eric felt he needed to do or say something if for no other reason that Jane was crawling all over the place, her godparents missing the show.
That evening after dinner, Eric called the Aherns, but no one answered. Lynne was keeping an eye on the couple’s freewheeling daughter, what Eric said as Jane crept or crawled under the dining room table, through chair legs, even into the sunroom. Eric had to move the easel which displayed the canvas of Jane and her pastor, not wishing to have that painting crash to the floor. On Sunday Marek was coming over for lunch and to view the canvas. Then, like the rest that were destined for New York, it would be moved into the storage building, waiting to be carefully packed, then shipped east.
Eric was restless, then told his wife he was going for a drive. Lynne asked no questions, but did have Eric kiss their daughter goodnight. Eric smiled, Lynne’s subtle way of saying take your time. Eric felt that Sam was home, but wasn’t answering his phone. Eric thought that might work to his advantage, or at least he would give Sam a reason to answer the telephone next time.
In the car, Eric pondered the president’s expectations, a man on the moon in the next seven and a half years. Jane would be eight by then, which made Eric wince, for he would be over forty. How many children might he and Lynne have, and would they be finished procreating? Eric smiled, for since learning to crawl, Jane had been nursing less, too busy discovering her new world. She ate whatever Lynne fed her and had already tasted her mother’s pumpkin pie. Lynne felt boysenberry or apple would be too sweet, and not smooth enough. But over the weekend, Eric had shared a mushed bite with his daughter, much to Lynne’s chagrin. Then Eric found himself being forced to share, for instantly Jane had developed a taste for her mother’s signature dessert. Eric hadn’t added any custard, over which Lynne had teased him, yet it was said in a cautious tone. Jane should be learning that custard was an Ahern specialty. However, since Fran went into labor, Jane hadn’t seen either of her godparents for more than moments, only when the two families happened to bump into each other around town.
Or was it one family and a couple, Eric mused. If things had been different, the Aherns would be in the process of adopting a child. Eric would have understood if Sam and Renee had taken a slower approach to that event, but Sam had been on a cloud for those few weeks when it was all they could talk about. And Renee had been…. She had been where Eric had seen her so wishing to be, long before Jane was born. When he’d painted her in the summer of 1960, motherhood had lingered in her stoplight eyes like a faint dream, one that no matter how much time passed could never be extinguished. When Jane was born, that idea was crystalized, although Renee would never admit to it, or not to Eric. But she had made her husband see the light and they had been so close to….
Then the worst possible event had occurred. Yet, Eric and Lynne were starting to talk about another baby, albeit a subject now hedged in mindfulness. But Eric didn’t think it would be much longer before Lynne conveniently forgot her diaphragm, and while she hadn’t gotten her period, Jane wouldn’t breastfeed forever. When he got home, Eric would have to ask if Jane had nursed that evening. Maybe Lynne might let Jane wear herself out, then put their footloose offspring to sleep. Eric smiled; Jane wasn’t the same baby as a month ago and Eric would make that point to Sam among other issues that Eric wished to air.
Reaching the Aherns’ street, Eric parked in front of their house. Sam’s vehicle was in the driveway and lights shone in the living room. Eric quietly got out of his car, then approached the porch. Renee was probably at work and Eric wondered if God had arranged these details, then Eric smiled. Of course he had.
Eric knocked, then stood back. Several seconds passed, then footsteps could be heard. Then they paused and Eric fought a grin as if he was watching Sam vacillate. Finally the front door opened, Sam looking somewhat sheepish. “Oh hello Eric.”
“Good evening Sam. Might I come in?”
“Uh, sure.” Sam stepped back, then he looked out. “Just you?”
“Yeah. Jane’s run off and Lynne’s trying to find her.”
As Eric stepped over the threshold, Sam coughed. “What’d you say?”
Eric laughed. “Oh, just that now with Jane crawling, it’s hard to keep track of her. She nearly knocked over the painting of her and Marek, had to put it in the storage building. She rules the roost until she falls asleep, sometimes right in the middle of the room.”
Sam didn’t speak, but he closed the door. The men stood in the living room, then Sam cleared his throat. “Well, sounds like she’s really going to town.”
“She is, or she would be if we left the front gate open. You should come over to see her. It’s been ages since you’ve been by.”
Eric knew exactly the last time Sam had visited, that day Eric found him seated at their patio table. Weeks had passed in the interim, but those days felt much longer to Eric. Sam looked older, or thinner, or had he lost what little hair had graced his head? Eric wanted to shake this man so the demons resting on Sam’s shoulders would fall away. Instead Eric smiled, then looked around the quiet room. “So, Renee working tonight?”
“What? Oh, uh, yeah she is. Been getting a lotta extra shifts lately.”
Eric nodded. “Lynne’s tried to set up a time for all of us to get together, but I’ll tell you, hard to arrange even lunch for those ladies.”
Sam grunted, nodding his head.
Eric gazed at the paintings, back in their usual spaces on the wall. “So I talked to Stanford recently. There’s gonna be a New York show in November. I told him you said the barn and the hawks were still good to go. I’m sure he’ll give you a call in another day or two.”
Sam stared at Eric. “Did you remind him the hawks aren’t for sale?”
“Yup.” Eric walked to where those three birds gazed into the sunset. He didn’t remember painting them now, too many canvases had come since. And he wasn’t the same man anymore, his faith, Jane, and the friendship with Sam absorbing much of what remained of Eric’s unused gray matter. But Eric would never forget painting the blue barn and he peered at it, looking past the structure, into the mice’s frightened eyes. Eric nearly shivered for how the father mouse standing at the barn’s front left corner beseeched his family to join him. Get over here, he seemed to say, before those two birds realize dinner is just yards away.
But at the time those mice were scurrying into the barn, Eric was battling a falcon, and he recalled that too, his heart racing as he’d ripped into the falcon’s back, trying not to be injured himself. Then after the falcon had fallen and limped away, Eric had taken stock; no prey remained. The mice were safe, so was anything else Eric could have eaten. Later he found an unsuspecting squirrel, and somehow he could taste that meat as if his memories as a hawk were permanently imbedded in his brain. Or maybe it was that one instance so that later he could paint that barn, then come to Sam’s house to try to reason with him. Eric turned to face that man, who was indeed his brother. “Sam, I came here tonight to….”
Sam waved him off. “Eric, it’s none of your business.”
Eric smiled. “Oh really? It’s none of my and Lynne’s business that our best friends are having a marital crisis.”
Sam glared at Eric, then shook his head. “Oh for God’s sake, don’t sound so….”
“So what?” Eric stepped Sam’s way. “So truthful? I haven’t seen you in weeks and Lynne hasn’t seen Renee and Jane hasn’t seen either one of you. Thank the lord she hasn’t been colicky, I know that’s why she was so miserable in June, but this time….”
“Stop it Eric. Look, if you’re gonna start this, you can just leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me why you’re so mad.”
“I’m not mad!” Then Sam clucked. “I am not mad. You’re just trying to make me….”
“I’m just trying to save your marriage, you pig-headed idiot!”
Sam sputtered, then shoved hands into his pockets. “I don’t need you coming over here and telling me what’s what. You can just leave Eric and I mean it.”
“Well unfortunately, I’m not going anywhere Sam. I’m your brother and I want an answer.”
“An answer to what?”
“To why you’ve turned into such a, a, a crab.” Eric had considered other adjectives, but crab perfectly described Sam. “You’re an absolute crab these days. I called here not half an hour ago and no one answered. What, you step out, take a walk, or just not wanna talk to anyone?”
“I, I was in the bathroom, if you must know.”
“Well, I guess next time I’ll call back. And I’ll just keep calling every five minutes till you get off the pot and answer the damn phone.”
“Look here Eric, I don’t need….” Suddenly Sam stopped speaking, but he trembled. Eric approached him, but didn’t reach out. Yet Sam looked as if he would buckle. Eric led him to the sofa where Sam fell into the end with a heavy plop. Then Sam put his face into his hands. He still shook, but he didn’t make any noise.
“Sam, you want some water?” Eric spoke softly. “Sam, you okay?”
A minute later, Sam looked up, his face drained of color. He nodded, then mumbled water. Eric stood, heading to the kitchen. He returned with a mostly full glass and Sam sipped from it, then placed it on a coaster on the coffee table. He cracked his knuckles, the sound like shots. Eric sat two feet away, aware that Sam needed space, but that a barrier had fallen.
“Sam, I’m here, you can tell me anything. I wanna help both you and Renee. Please, you can’t go on like this much longer.”
“Renee’s not here Eric.”
“Well, she’ll be home soon enough.”
Sam shook his head. “Renee’s at her parents’ house. She left early last week.”
“Oh my God, oh Sam!”
Grasping the glass, Sam drained it. Then he threw it across the room where it crashed into the far wall, pointy shards landing on the carpet like daggers. Eric glanced that way, then he looked at Sam. That man no longer appeared angry, but as fragmented as the glass that was now lying in pieces.
“It’s over Eric, or it will be. It’s my fault, I drove her away.” He had a sardonic laugh. “Literally. I took her over there, told her I didn’t wanna see her anymore. But she’d packed a bag, maybe it’s a mutual separation. She told her mother she needed time to grieve for….” Sam choked, then looked at the empty coaster, then to the mess on the other side of the room. Then he stared at Eric. “To grieve for babies she didn’t think deserved to live. Well, too damn late for her to care now, huh? They’re dead, Fran’s twins are dead and so’s my….” He took a deep breath. “I should’ve let her go when I came back, no use making us both suffer all these years. She could’ve made a new life for herself, had everything she wanted, she could’ve….”
“Easier to push her away, I guess, than be honest with her.”
Sam’s cheeks were on fire and his blue eyes seethed. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“That’s what you two were fighting about in June, why Jane didn’t see her godparents for a whole month, instead making my and Lynne’s lives miserable. But you worked it out then, even decided that a family was something you wanted. Then the worst thing possible happened. And that’s the truth. But I guess it’s not the very worst, or God wouldn’t have let it happen, now would he?”
Sam stood, shaking his fist at Eric. “Get outta my house right now Snyder. I never wanna see you again!”
Eric went to his feet. He was a few inches taller than Sam, although Sam weighed more. Still, Eric threw up his dukes. “You’re gonna have to throw me out Ahern. I dare you.”
“Why you bastard!” Sam pulled back his right arm, but before a punch could be thrown, he dropped that limb to his side, tears falling down his face. “Leave Eric, just get out. She’s gone, nothing means anything now.”
Eric grasped Sam’s shoulders. “She loves you, you know that. And you love her, don’t tell me you don’t.”
Sam shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what I feel. I can’t give her what she wants, I can’t….”
“She wants you, your forgiveness, she wants to….” Make a family sat on the tip of Eric’s tongue, but he didn’t say it. “Call her now Sam. Call and tell her….”
“What, that I’m sorry? What am I supposed to be sorry for Eric? Yeah, I’m sorry I got shot, but as for the rest of it….” Sam shook Eric’s hands from his shoulders. “She’s the one who said those babies shouldn’t even be alive and I guess God was listening. That’s why Fran nearly died, that’s why Simon and Andrew are….” Sam shoved a pointed finger into Eric’s chest. “I lost two nephews Eric, two beautiful little boys all because….”
“Because that was God’s will. The twins aren’t dead because of your wife.”
“God’s will huh? Well, I guess you know all about God’s will, doncha? What, you talk to your Polish pastor about this? That make you some kinda expert on the subject?”
“All I know about forgiveness I learned from my wife. Every time I come back home, no matter how much she’s hurting, Lynne always forgives me.”
Sam had been ready to speak, but his jaw dropped, then he shook his head. “Well, that makes you luckier than me and Renee. Good for you Eric to have a saint for a wife. Not everybody’s so damned blessed.”
“No Sam. You are blessed. Because sometimes you can be a real jackass and Renee forgives you anyways.”
The men stared at each other. Then Eric spoke. “Lynne told me that right now you’re just like you were two and a half years ago, wondering what the hell was going on. Had she murdered me, hidden the body, what exactly? You were certain something nefarious had taken place, then I came home, told you the truth, which you didn’t really believe until the Fourth of July. I’ll never forget the way you called after me, wishing to God that wasn’t actually happening. But it was, I did turn into a hawk, right before your eyes. Lynne told me how contrite you were afterwards and when I came home you were the one to take care of me. You have a great capacity to love Sam, a tremendous empathy. You also have one of the most stubborn streaks I’ve ever encountered. But like I told Lynne a couple of weeks ago, that probably saved you in Korea. You’re here biting my head off today because you’re such an obstinate son of a….”
“Did she tell you what Renee said?”
“What, uh, no, she didn’t. What’d Renee say Sam?”
Sam glanced at the broken glass, then to the blue barn, keeping his eyes there. “She said that you loved Lynne so much and couldn’t believe she stayed with you. That you’d do anything to make it stop, to stop changing. But you couldn’t, yet, Lynne stayed. Renee said why’d these things happen to us, to all three, or four, of us. That all she and Lynne wanted….” Sam turned back to face Eric. “They wanted our children and Lynne had yours. You came home and she had Jane. But that’ll never happen for Renee and me and now she’s gone and….”
“She’s gone because you sent her away Sam. You made it impossible for her to stay.”
“She should’ve let me go when I came home. I wasn’t any good to her then and all I am is a bastard to her now. A jackass, I think you said.”
“An obstinate son of a gun.” Eric cracked a smile. “No offense to your parents intended.”
Sam nodded. “Well, I guess I sure as hell am.”
“Sam, let me call her. It’s not that late. I’ll drive over and bring her here, I’m sure she wants to put this behind you both. She loves you; she must to put up with you all this time.”
Sam rolled his eyes, then walked to where glass shone in the light. “I need to clean this up, shit, what the hell was I thinking?”
“You clean that up and I’ll call Renee. By the time we get back, I’m sure you’ll have every single piece outta the carpet.”
“Eric, don’t. It’s late and….”
“Is it too late Sam?”
Sam squatted near the glass, carefully picking up the biggest pieces. “I dunno.”
“Well, only one way to find out.” Eric walked toward the kitchen where the phone rested on a table. He didn’t know Renee’s parents’ number, but he could call Lynne to tell her he wouldn’t be home for a while. As he grabbed the receiver, Sam stepped into the room, broken glass in his hand. He carefully set it into the trash, then glared at Eric. “You don’t know the number, so how’re you gonna call her?”
“Well first I was gonna call my wife and tell her not to wait up for me.”
Sam sat at the table, but didn’t clasp his hands together. “Eric, it’s useless. I can’t, I mean….”
“Do you really not love her anymore? Can you sit there and honestly tell me that Sam?”
“I don’t deserve her Eric. She’s better off without me.”
Sam’s voice wasn’t more than a whisper, but those were the words Eric had been waiting to hear. “Sam, for years I felt I didn’t deserve Lynne. Why’d she stay, what on God’s green earth did she see in me? But I loved her. I adored her and I needed her. And for better or worse, she took me as her husband and I realized, seeing her after you took care of me for that week, that I’d hurt her more by keeping her away than all those months when I was gone. I will never do that to her again Sam, no matter what. Even if, God forbid, I end up not turning back into a man one day, I will never deny her like that again. I can’t Sam. I love her, I need her. Just like Renee loves and needs you.”
Eric knelt in front of Sam. “For whatever reason, we happened to find the right person and so did they. No, it’s not easy, sometimes it’s downright miserable, but love irons out the roughest edges. Lynne’s put up with all my crap over the years and I can say the same about Renee, but then you’ve had to endure some pretty tough times too. Marriage isn’t easy Sam, but I believe it is for life, regardless of religion or the lack of it. I’ll call Lynne, then you call Renee. You’re right, I don’t know the Nolans’ phone number. But I’d bet the worth of that barn painting she’s waiting for you, whether she’s there or at work. She’s just waiting for you to….”
“She’s not at work. She took a sabbatical.”
Eric felt sick to his stomach. Then he swallowed and went to his feet. “Well then, tell you what. You call Renee first. That’ll give her time to get her bag packed. I’ll call Lynne, then I’ll drive you over there. You’re in no shape to get behind the wheel and she’s probably not either.”
Sam sighed, staring at Eric. “And then what? You got a magic wand in your pocket, gonna wave it over us, make everything all better?”
Eric chuckled. “I wish. No Sam. Then it’s the hard part, where you talk to her and listen to her too. And then you forgive her and she forgives you and after that, well, I’ll be at home asleep, unless Jane wakes.”
“It’s not that easy Eric.”
“No it’s not, but then me changing back into a man after living in the wild blue yonder for five months wasn’t exactly a picnic. But I did it somehow. Well, I know how. Because you stood beside me and God wanted it that way. God doesn’t want you and Renee apart, Sam. That’s the last thing he wants.”
Sam stood, then motioned to the ceiling. “But God wanted Frannie’s boys to die, is that what you’re telling me? He wanted those babies dead and Fran nearly dead and me and Renee together, is that what I’m getting from you Eric?”
Eric stepped toward Sam, leaving less than a foot between them. “Yeah Sam, that’s it. I know I’m new at this faith stuff, but he didn’t spare his own son. Why shouldn’t we expect some heartache along the way?”
Sam started to speak, then fell silent. He glanced at the phone, staring at it for more than a minute. He took several deep breaths, then gazed at Eric. “Call Lynne, tell her you’ll be home later. Then wait in the car while I call Renee.”
Eric nodded, not asking any questions. He spoke briefly to his wife, who also didn’t inquire beyond Eric’s expected time of return. He wasn’t sure and told her so. Then he closed the call and headed to the living room, seeing himself out. Eric waited five minutes, then watched as Sam exited the house, locking the door behind him. Sam got into the passenger’s seat, then nodded. “She’ll be ready when we get there.”
“Sounds good. Just tell me where to go.”
“Drive to the interstate and go south. I’ll let you know once we’re that far.”
Eric started the car, turning on the headlights. He made a three-point turn on Sam’s street, then headed for the highway.
On that same evening in Minneapolis, several men were gathered around the two paintings on permanent loan to the Caffey-Miller Institute. The artist’s name was unknown to nearly all the patients, although a few of the staff had inquired about Eric Snyder, learning that originally he was a nature artist who had stopped painting hawks a couple of years ago. His canvases still focused on natural settings, but more prevalent now were portraits, many of them displaying average families, well, families with several children. But to the men at Caffey-Miller, those details wouldn’t be believed, for the two paintings they saw daily were abstract and healing.
To one man, seated on the floor, Eric’s canvases were a double-edged sword. Several times a day Seth stopped by where they were displayed, sometimes lingering for minutes, occasionally sitting where he was now, against the far wall, staring at pictures that had pierced his soul in places shock therapy hadn’t reached. Seth had to brush lengthy dark blonde hair from his blue eyes, or sometimes he gazed through that unruly mane, trying to hear what Eric was telling him. Seth knew why these paintings, some of the most captivating he had ever viewed, were at that mental hospital; they were for him, although he never said that aloud. The conception and the birth, how Seth coined them, were the essence of Eric’s creative soul, and that they were shut away in a Midwestern mental hospital always made Seth smile when he considered it. In Laurie’s last letter, Seth had learned that Eric’s paintings were destined for a European exhibition for perhaps up to a year. Seth wondered if the blue barn would be included, then he had winced, wishing to see it up close again. The days he had gone to the gallery and witnessed the truths in that painting had been some of his most peaceful times. The barn contained…. Seth had to stop thinking about the barn. He needed to concentrate on his own art so they would let him go home.
But what he was forming wasn’t what he truly needed to sculpt; these projects were his way of informing Dr. Tasker that indeed shock therapy had worked. No longer did Seth feel like killing himself, which had given him enough breathing room to even consider sculpting. Currently several figures waited in the art lab, all based upon those with whom he lived. Those men seemed happy for their likenesses; Seth hadn’t tried to disguise anyone, and some of the emptiness had been alleviated by putting his hands to cool wet clay. Although it had been years since he had fashioned anything, after a few bungled attempts the relative ease of sculpting had returned, although the figures he produced were crude compared to his previous pieces. And while they impressed those upon whom they were based and pleased Dr. Tasker, they weren’t what Seth ached to create, although he couldn’t remember why he wanted to make those other items; what had they symbolized?
When he got home, which looked to be in a month’s time, Seth would spend his initial days in the comfort of his family, which mainly meant his mother, older sisters, and Laurie. Yet, with Laurie, Seth would have to be careful. He sighed as a small ache stirred in his chest. Then he stood, shaking out his legs, which had been falling asleep. How long had he been sitting on the floor, gazing at Eric’s treasures? The conception had fascinated Seth, from the vivid hues to how they blended in a circular rainbow. But the birth was the sort of painting Seth would never tire of, the woman’s form ablaze with life via distinct swathes of the color spectrum, wide brushstrokes announcing a miracle exploding into the corporeal realm. It reminded Seth of the figurines he had made as a teenager, unaware of how talented he already was at such a young age. He was thirty-three now, that was practically half his life ago, but even then he’d been aware of humanity’s cry that was met with loving assistance. Or often it had been met with divine grace. Or sometimes it was answered in haste. Or occasionally it was acknowledged with concern. Or….
Seth’s head ached, but if he asked for an aspirin, a nurse might inquire further. He didn’t want to raise any suspicions; Seth simply wanted to go home. There he would be smothered with familial love, then left to his clay, and that was what he wanted most. There were many things he needed to sculpt, years’ worth of work that had been trapped, but now teemed in his head, even if their meanings were cloaked. The ache subsided and he smiled, shaking out the last vestiges of sleep which tingled in his lower limbs. When he got home, all he had to do was get to work. And avoid Laurie. Again Seth winced, but he nodded to himself, not looking back at Eric’s paintings as he headed down the corridor. If he did those two things, everything would be fine.
As Seth fell asleep, Eric left the Aherns’ house. It was well after nine thirty Pacific Time, midnight approaching in Minnesota, but while Renee fidgeted on the sofa, Sam in the chair across, time was an unknown element. Time had ceased to matter from the moment Sam’s older brother Ted had rushed into the library with the bad news. As Ted relayed what was in motion, Renee felt a toxic bubble in the pit of her stomach as a terrible nightmare came to fruition. But the worst didn’t rear its dreadful head until the Aherns reached the hospital, where Fran had just given birth to twins that were destined to die before the end of that day.
Renee remembered reaching the lobby, where most of Louie’s family had gathered. Renee and Sam had raced to the elevator, enduring what seemed like an endless ride to the maternity ward, then were met by most of Sam’s clan, who were ashen-faced or in tears. Louie was standing beside a stern-looking doctor and immediately Renee knew the news wasn’t good. That was the last time Sam had touched her, gripping her hand so hard she wanted to cry. But the deeper pain came moments later, when Joan approached them, her red, damp face causing Sam to drop Renee’s hand as if she was a leper. Joan told them that the babies were very sick and that Fran was in equally dire straits.
From that moment, Renee’s position had changed from that of Sam’s beloved spouse to a heinous witch, but he never spoke a cruel word to her, hadn’t hit her. All he had done was to shut her completely from his life, and now here she was, sitting on their couch in a house she had left partly of her own will, and because Sam basically threw her out. Which part had been larger, Renee wondered, as Sam kept glancing to the far wall.
When her mother told her Sam was on the phone wanting to speak to her, Renee wondered if the break in their marriage he’d wanted years before was finally materializing. Back then he had spoken of an annulment, but divorce? She had considered such a black mark, for some Catholics actually went that far. It wasn’t prohibited, but so frowned upon that Renee wasn’t sure what she would do; move to another town, wear a scarlet D on her nurse’s uniform. She hadn’t said much to her mom, other than Sam was upset about his sister and work was miserable and that she had needed a break. But Renee’s mother had nearly suffered a stroke when Renee said Sam wanted an annulment, and that had been a decade ago. Renee’s mom wasn’t in the best of health, and speaking about a divorce might have killed Marie Nolan.
Yet all Sam had wanted to tell her was that he, and Eric, were on their way over there. That he wanted to talk to her, but his voice hadn’t been frosty like it had been for the last few weeks. It was Sam’s icy tone that had made Renee pack a bag, then not complain when Sam said if she was that tired of him, he’d be glad to take her home. And that time, home meant where Marie and Eugene Nolan had raised many children who at one time or another slipped back under their roof when life grew hard. Yet, Renee hadn’t lived at home since Sam returned from Korea. Before packing a bag in June, Renee had never expected to think of her childhood residence as any more than where she had lived as a kid. Yet for the last week, Renee had coveted the coziness where she and eight brothers and sisters had dwelled in a fair amount of harmony, even if the place was four bedrooms with only one bathroom. The Aherns’ house was a spacious three bedrooms, one full bath plus a half, which always seemed bigger after Renee had visited her siblings who were crowding anywhere from five to eleven people in about the same size space. Ritchie’s house was bigger than Renee’s, but then he and Brenda had nine kids.
Renee and Sam had none, but Renee didn’t ponder that, for here she was, back in her house, although she wasn’t sure if it was still her home. Sam looked like he’d lost weight, yet it had only been a week since she’d seen him, well, ten days. He had driven her to her parents’ a week ago last Monday, now it was Thursday. She had asked for a lengthy break from work for she had been taking double shifts since the middle of August, and her boss had given her three weeks off without argument. Maybe word had gotten around that the Aherns’ marriage was on the rocks, or just that Renee’s sister-in-law had lost twin sons and had nearly died. Hardly a moment went by that Renee wasn’t reminded of that horror, but looking at Sam’s somewhat contrite face, Renee didn’t concentrate on Fran or those boys, whose names seemed tattooed into Renee’s soul.
“So….” Sam’s tone was shaky, then he sighed. “How’ve you been?”
Renee wanted to shrug, say Terrible, then flee this place that didn’t seem friendly. Even if Sam had made the overture, how much of it was Eric’s doing? Then Renee blinked away tears, wondering if it was all Eric’s machinations, for there alone with her husband Renee didn’t feel particularly welcome. She felt like a poker chip having been hesitantly pushed into the middle of the table by a player holding a very dubious hand.
Eugene Nolan was a habitual card player and over the last ten days, Renee had played more bridge, pinochle, hearts, and gin rummy than was probably good for a person. But Gene’s favorite game was poker, only for pennies, well, dimes and nickels too. Games started at a dollar a head, chips dispersed, cigarette butts piled high in metal ashtrays that had been synonymous with playing cards all through Renee’s childhood. Her father had a terrible cough, but still smoked a pack and a half a day, and Marie could go through a pack easily. Several of Renee’s siblings smoked, women as well as men, but Renee had gotten sick the one time she’d tried, when she was fourteen and feeling adult. By then she was adept at cards, so smoking was the next Nolan attribute to master. However, Renee had choked, then thrown up, another manner in which she was separate from her family. She didn’t smoke, didn’t have children. She had also been the only one to ever mention breaking up with her husband, although Ritchie and Brenda and Tommy and his wife all had some pretty feisty arguments. Knock-down drag-outs Renee would call them, but the women always forgave their men, wives used to dealing with boisterous husbands who occasionally flirted with stronger vices, but never succumbed to those temptations, or at least not to the point where their wives permanently booted them back to the Nolan family home.
Ritchie and Tommy had predilections toward the typical Irish problem with booze, but they were hard working men who felt entitled to let off some steam with a few beers. Renee only drank whiskey for medicinal purposes, although over the last week and a half she’d wished for a few shots before saying goodnight to her parents. She felt in need of a drink now as Sam licked his lips, then looked back at the wall. Had he spilled something, she wondered, trying not to stare, forgetting that Sam had asked how she was.
Instead Renee gazed at her husband, wondering why he’d called her, what was this about? It was Eric’s doing, she was certain, which was sweet in a way, that he’d felt compelled to step into the situation, which to Renee’s mind was hopeless. Maybe Sam had forgiven her in June, when she first said what had emerged in a moment of self-pity. Well, she had still felt that way, on and off, but of course now she regretted those words with every fiber of her being. Not only had they been misguided and selfish, but they had ended her marriage. As a nurse, Renee knew Simon and Andrew were in a better place. As an aunt, she lamented their brief lives. As Sam’s wife, she ached for their presence, for if they were among the living, Renee’s marriage would be too.
Instead, it was teetering on the brink, even if Sam had called, even if she was sitting feet away from him. How long had it been since they had cuddled together; Renee didn’t even think about when they had last made love. Only that it had been ages since Sam had kissed her, caressed her face, run his fingers through her hair. He’d said he liked it short, it emphasized her gorgeous eyes, his exact words. Renee shivered, his loving tone like he’d spoken those endearing sentiments instead of the brusque language that had been prevalent since Fran’s babies died.
“Renee, are you okay?”
“What?” She stared at him, hearing that same curt tenor which again sliced through her heart. “Uh, yeah. Why?”
Sam sighed, then wrung his hands together. “I asked you a minute ago, well, five minutes ago.” He shook his head, then glanced at the paintings. Renee did too, wishing Eric or Lynne was there. If someone could mediate, perhaps, maybe, hopefully…. Then Renee grimaced. Probably not. What in the hell was she doing there, nothing of significance. At least if she was at home, she’d be keeping her dad busy, maybe he had smoked fewer cigarettes with her around. Then she chided herself. Her dad had smoked just as before, only mealtimes and mass curtailing his habit. But then maybe a pack and a half a day wasn’t that bad, she knew far worse addictions at work, and that wasn’t even of patients. Some of the doctors smoked two or three even, to cope with the demands. And certain nurses were always sneaking off to the break room, a few smoking in the stairwells. Renee was glad it had made her so ill years before. Otherwise she’d be just as hooked.
But Renee’s life had taken a different turn, wrapped up in one man who she adored, and sometimes suffered through. But never had it felt torturous, well, not in a long time. Sam’s tenure in the army had taken a toll on Renee, but the last few weeks were far worse than when he was overseas, for he had been right in her day-to-day, but even further away than Korea. More like on Mars, for how she couldn’t reach him, or reach out for him. She needed him so much, and still, with less than a yard separating them, Renee felt that Sam was in another galaxy. President Kennedy wanted to send men to the moon, well, Renee could tell him how without all the fuss. Just say the most selfish thing to a sensitive man and who’d need rocket science?
Sam was touchy; even before he went to Korea, he’d had his ways. But Renee had adored him; they never let each other’s quirky traits get in the way of loving each other. What had Eric said to him, it was something, Renee was certain. But Eric wasn’t there now, nor Lynne, nor anyone who might breach the awful silence that had caused Renee to pack a bag last week. That suitcase now rested in their guest room, where she would sleep as soon as Sam freed her from this inquisition. How was she; how was she? What kind of asinine question was that? “You wanna know how I am?” she blurted.
“What’d you ask me Sam, how I was, if I was okay? Well, I’m not okay. I’m terrible. And I have no idea why I’m here. What’d Eric say to make you call my parents, huh? Must’ve held a gun to your head.” She sniffed, then stood. “It’s late and I’m tired. I’ll call Dad in the morning, he can come get me. It’s obvious we’re through, no need to beat around the bush.” She headed for the hallway, mumbling to herself. “How am I, for goodness sake!”
Suddenly she was pulled back, facing her husband. Sam’s blue eyes were like a raging body of water and she tried to wrench away from the oncoming storm. “Let go of me,” she cried. “I just wanna….”
His kiss was as tempestuous as his eyes, which Renee could no longer see, for hers were closed, lost in warm waves of devotion as Sam wrapped strong arms around her. Renee reciprocated those needy clutches, wondering if this was some final assault; Sam would fling her away in disgust, ordering her to leave as soon as it could be arranged. Yet, his kisses were of a rare sort, like those they had shared in late June and at other odd moments when their heady natures had turned sour. Then Sam pressed against her and Renee nearly stumbled, only his robust grasp keeping her upright. He backed away, panting hard, then stroked her face. “Please don’t leave me Renee. I love you and I need you and I’m….”
She shook her head, then kissed him again, not wishing to hear a word he shouldn’t say. She was sorry, more sorry than Sam would ever know. Yet, he broke away from the kiss, putting his finger on her lips. “I am sorry honey, oh Renee, I am so damn sorry!”
She tried to refute him, but he wouldn’t permit it. Why was he being this contrite, so kind? It was her fault, not that the twins had died, but that the Aherns’ marriage had been lost alongside those babies. Renee didn’t think anything had changed; her marriage was still dead in the water, even if Sam was stroking her hips, then her waist, all the while keeping that one finger to her lips.
“I love you, I can’t live without you. This isn’t your fault, none of it. And I mean that. Not one single part of this is your responsibility. It’s mine, Renee. It’s been mine for a long time, for not giving you what your beautiful open heart so desperately desired. I made you deny a part of yourself that was so wholesome and necessary all because I was afraid. Oh honey, please forgive me. Let me make this up to you Renee, please? I can’t live without you and God knows I’ve tried. But I’m a mess. I threw a glass against the wall tonight and I wanted to beat the crap out of Eric. I don’t wanna be that man again Renee and only with you does all that go away.”
She nodded, then kissed his finger, which still forbid her speech. She was the only one who knew his secrets, not that he had harmed a single soul on purpose, but as a soldier he had done things no upright man should ever do. War should be illegal, Renee thought, as Sam began to weep, for it stirred in men abominable traits that otherwise would lie unprovoked. Men had the tendency for violence, she wouldn’t deny that, but unless it was triggered, most lived calm, productive lives. Sam had been that sort of man until he’d enlisted. And even now, he was still one of the most loving, compassionate people she had ever known. But the horrors he had witnessed and taken part in had altered him, and it had little to do with fathering children. That had been a fluke, for out of all the injuries Sam could have sustained, he was struck by one that outwardly denigrated his masculinity. Yet his masculinity wasn’t in any way compromised at that moment.
“I need you,” she murmured. “I can’t live without you either.”
He nodded, tears now falling down his face. Then he laid his wet cheek along hers, salty tears landing on Renee’s lips, then returning to Sam via her kisses. She wanted to apologize, but he wouldn’t let her, so instead she initiated the most thorough form of healing, even if they stood in their living room. But the curtains were drawn, it was only the two of them. As Renee shed her clothes, helping Sam from his, she didn’t worry about a broken glass or his anger at Eric. All to matter was that Sam was no longer furious with her. Renee maneuvered them onto the floor, then encouraged her husband to finalize their reconciliation. And as Sam completed that reunion, Renee wept joyful tears, calling his name, hearing hers crooned in that adoring voice that had seemed absent, but was indeed present. Again Sam was with her, he said he would never leave her. Renee inhaled that absolute, then prayed, asking God to give them both his peace.
Jane Renee was six months old right after the Aherns reconciled. That couple visited the Snyders on September fourteenth, not that Lynne threw Jane a party, although pie was served, custard too, so it felt like a celebration. Unstated was the biggest reason for the festive mood, although Jane traveled across the living room floor unaided. Yet, once having displayed her latest accomplishment, she spent the rest of the evening in her godparents’ arms, receiving bites of pie and custard to her feverish delight and Lynne’s slight annoyance. But to Lynne’ pleasure, Jane didn’t whine to nurse, collapsing against her Uncle Sam’s shoulder. Eric took Jane to bed, leaving four adults with the first quiet moment of the night.
The conversation had been jovial until Jane’s absence; over a month had passed since the couples had seen each other all together, the last time being at the twins’ funeral. None of the Canfields had been mentioned that evening, but each knew the latest news; Fran was much improved, the children adjusting to the altered arrangements, which meant that no longer was their mother debilitated, at least not physically. None were certain to the state of her emotional health, but all would admit that Fran was a strong woman, her faith at the core of her being. Yet those sentiments remained unspoken as Eric settled on the sofa beside Lynne, Renee on the other side, and Sam in the recliner. The foursome glanced at each other, cracking their knuckles or fidgeting.
Lynne wanted Eric to initiate the dialogue, but his last words with Sam had been quite heated, or the last words spoken by them alone. All night the Snyders and Aherns had made a point of not pairing off, watching Jane or standing together in the kitchen. Or they had been seated at the dining table, enjoyable chit-chat the rule. Lynne inhaled deeply, then her hand was clasped by Renee. Tears rested in the corners of Renee’s eyes and Lynne gripped back hard. “It’s so good to see you,” Lynne said softly.
Yet it was Sam who spoke. “We feel the same. Sorry it’s taken me so long to….”
“No apologies are necessary,” Eric smiled. “We’re just happy to share Jane’s latest adventures with someone in person. I think Stanford’s getting tired of hearing about it.”
Sam grinned. “But not Laurie?”
“Oh Laurie would listen all day, Agatha too. But I’m on her list right now, so she speaks mostly to Lynne.”
“Why?” Renee said, trying to remain calm.
“Well, the show’s scheduled for late November, sort of an odd time of year for new paintings to be revealed, but the whole exhibit will go to London in January, a fairly brief showing in New York relative to the last exhibits. We’re staying here but Agatha wants to see Jane. I told her we’d be there sometime in ’63, trying to make the peace.”
“You nearly promised we’d be there in spring.” Lynne smiled, but inwardly she shivered. For Eric to make such a declaration was like tempting…. Lynne wasn’t sure if one actually tempted God, but no longer did she consider fate as an arbitrary twist of circumstance. Seth was going home next month; they had just learned that in Laurie’s latest letter. That Laurie had chosen to send that information via the post was also telling. While he loved hearing about Jane over the telephone, he hadn’t wished to speak about his cousin.
“Well, spring in New York’s supposed to be pretty nice.” Sam smiled, but it seemed forced. Lynne wondered if that was due to the somewhat trivial nature of their conversation or if he too worried that Eric had pledged more than was appropriate.
“Supposed to be,” Eric said, grasping Lynne’s hand. “I guess we’ll see.”
No one responded and the silence grew awkward. Then Renee stood, excusing herself to the bathroom. She had been sniffling, the only sound to stir the air, but it had exacerbated the quiet, which had never before intruded between these couples. Yet, the Aherns had put their sorrows behind them, or most of the sadness. Lynne ached to know if they were again considering adoption, but she wouldn’t ask, for that was indeed too personal.
Eric cleared his throat, then motioned toward the French doors. “So Sam, you never saw the painting I did of Jane and Marek. Wanna take a look?”
Lynne wanted to observe Sam’s reaction. Instead she picked at invisible fluff on her skirt while Sam rustled in his chair. “Uh, well, sure. Shall we wait for Renee?”
“The last time I made Renee go out to the garden, I could tell she wanted to kick me.” Eric stood, then smiled. “C’mon, before the light’s gone.”
Now Lynne glanced up, finding Sam reluctantly moving to his feet. The men headed for the closed French doors, one of which still sported that newer glass pane. Eric hadn’t replaced those doors when the room was renovated, as if that single windowpane was a silent marker of their past. No longer did those memories make Lynne wince, but not because it had been over ten months since Eric had last altered form. Even if he changed again, Lynne was now a mother, and a Christian. And, God forbid, if something happened to derail a proposed trip to New York, perhaps it would hasten the truth being shared with another couple, then Lynne giggled. Laurie might be able to contemplate Eric as a hawk, but what would Stanford think?
As Renee returned, Lynne was still chuckling. “What is it?” Renee asked, looking around. “Where’d the guys go?”
“They went outside; Eric wanted to show Sam the painting of Jane and Pastor Jagucki.” Lynne joined Renee in the middle of the room, both women gazing toward the closed French doors. Then Renee walked that way, stopping right as she reached the exit. She gazed at the right door and Lynne wondered if she too was staring at that single pane.
“I still see it, this one.” Renee pointed, then traced her fingers along the wood grain. “I see it every time I come over here, funny huh?”
“I see it sometimes, not sure what that means.”
“It means….” Renee shook her head, then turned back to Lynne. “Is it good, the painting?”
“Oh yes.” Lynne smiled. “It’s beautiful actually, makes me want him to paint another of you and her. And of….” Lynne took a deep breath. “Of Laurie and Stanford with Jane. One of these days he’ll get those fellows to sit for a portrait.”
Renee nodded, then gazed back to the French doors. “He’ll never get Sam to pose for him.”
The words hung heavily, but Lynne wasn’t as convinced as Renee. “Well, let’s get the New Yorkers first, maybe Agatha too. If we go next spring, it’ll be for longer than a few days.”
Renee faced Lynne. “How long?”
“A month if Agatha and Laurie have their way.”
Renee smiled. “A week if Stanford plans it.”
“Well,” Lynne giggled, joining Renee at the doors. “A week in their apartment. Then we’d stay at Michael’s and maybe Agatha would invite us to her home.”
“Stanford really does love Jane.” Renee sighed. “He can’t deny it, not that he wants a family, but he’s very fond of my goddaughter.”
“He is.” Lynne noted the possessiveness in Renee’s voice. Had the couple decided not to adopt? “He hates admitting it, I think in part because he’s not close to his sisters’ children. Perhaps he feels a little guilty.”
Renee looked at Lynne. “And the other part?”
“He never imagined feeling that way. His life’s always been about work and Laurie, but not anything remotely paternal. I remember the first time I met him, he was….” She smiled. “He wasn’t contemptuous of me, but Eric was all that mattered. I don’t think he disregards women, but he doesn’t have much use for us either.”
“No, I suppose he doesn’t. Are any of his artists female?”
“No. I think his mother’s health has also changed his attitude. He loves her very much, probably the only woman he’s ever felt that strongly about. Now she’s, well, she can’t love him back. It’s terribly sad.” Then Lynne paused, for worse events had occurred.
But Renee gripped Lynne’s hand. “I can’t imagine what that must be like, that she’s alive, but doesn’t know him, or her husband.” Renee gave a small gasp, squeezing Lynne’s hand with force. “Michael must be beside himself.”
“I do feel a little guilty that we’re not going out for the show. I know Jane would brighten his day.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t come out with Laurie and Stanford.”
“Constance’s health has worsened and I don’t think he felt comfortable being so far from home.”
Renee released Lynne’s hand. “You haven’t said anything about that.”
Lynne nodded. “We haven’t had much time to talk lately.”
Renee grew teary, then again she grasped Lynne’s hand. “I thought it was over, I really did. I’m still surprised he took….” She inhaled deeply, then let it out in jerks. “He said he was sorry, but wouldn’t let me say those words. He still hasn’t. Every time I try, he….”
Sobs formed between Renee’s words and she wept, then quickly composed herself. “I love him so much, I really do. And he loves me, I know he does, it’s just that sometimes he….”
“Turns into someone else.”
Renee smiled at Lynne. “I guess you know all about that, huh.”
“Eric’s got a corner on the hawk market, but Sam has his own issues. We all do Renee. No one’s perfect.”
Renee nodded, then smiled, which turned into laughter. “Good grief, you’re right.” Then she gazed through the French doors. “Where are they?”
“Probably in the studio.”
“Did he capture Pastor Jagucki’s eyes?”
“Well, they’re brown.” Lynne smiled. “And Jane’s are still blue.”
“Yes they are.” Then Renee gazed at Lynne. “But haven’t you noticed how, well, how brown they are? They’re like the richest chocolate, like the fields Eric painted of you, you know, in that first portrait.”
Lynne chuckled. “That brown huh?”
Renee nodded. “I’ve never seen eyes that brown, I mean, yours are dark, but his, they’re not black, but so deep. I wonder what happened to him over there.”
Renee spoke as if she was lost in the past, making Lynne wonder what Sam had endured in Korea. Of course it wasn’t to the same scale as what Marek had suffered, although who was Lynne to judge? One man had lost his entire family while another had killed…. Lynne shivered, she had never considered Sam’s tangible actions in Korea, other than his injury. Yet, Sam hadn’t been an innocent bystander. Lynne shut her eyes, not wishing to think about this. She gripped Renee’s hand, then opened her eyes, finding Renee still gazing at the garden. “More coffee?” Lynne asked.
“What, oh sure. Decaf, right?”
“All we drink. Marek says he’s even grown to like it more than regular.”
Renee smiled. “Well, as long as it’s hot enough, tastes all the same to me.”
Lynne nodded, leading them into the kitchen.
While Lynne started another pot of coffee, Eric watched Sam study the painting of Marek and Jane. Sometimes Eric thought of it as Jane and Marek, but from how Sam stared at the pastor, this was all about the person happily holding Eric’s daughter. Jane was a bystander in this canvas, even to her father. Would Eric ever see her as the primary focus again? Perhaps not. This piece would be titled Pastor and His Charge, not that Eric often labeled his paintings. Yet, this one had altered; Eric would never look at Jane first, but to a man who on canvas had the brownest eyes Eric had ever seen.
Not even Lynne’s were this sumptuous, like majestic tree branches hanging high over the earth, or luscious fertile fields waiting to be sown. Eric had depicted Lynne’s hair in a similar fashion, but the hue he’d employed for Marek’s eyes was more opulent. Eric wondered if Sam would ask; of course he’d noticed, for he gazed right at Marek’s face. It was the face of a man having suffered tremendous heartache, but the only hint to it was in the depth of Marek’s cocoa-brown eyes.
Sam stepped to the left, trying to take advantage of a new spot, but the light was nearly gone. Eric wondered if what Marek had endured was on par with Fran’s heartache, or the weight Sam still bore. Part of his anguish had been alleviated by Jane, Eric wouldn’t deny that. But Frannie’s losses had reignited some of Sam’s agony, or had reminded him of it, and maybe it was too wound within Sam to set aside, regardless of the joy new life had stirred. Jane’s birth was now balanced by two deaths, although the Aherns’ marriage hadn’t been lost. Eric had witnessed that all evening in how Sam was never more than a few feet from his wife, holding hands or their arms wrapped around each other. The Aherns had never been so demonstrative, but they had also never been so far apart. The man Eric had seen just nights ago was the man Sam had left in Korea, or who he’d thought he’d cut out upon his return home. But a person’s past was woven through them no matter how far they traveled away from it.
Eric had painted the pastor’s eyes just as he saw them, a warm but intense brown that couldn’t hide what he had seen. Yet, even for the darkness of the shade, the sense was of healing, hope, goodness. Marek had encountered a horrific catastrophe, Eric had no doubt, but those events hadn’t tarnished his soul. They had enriched it, albeit over time. Eric supposed he was the same, not permitting his father’s brutality to ruin him, but he’d been so young, a child’s tender mind erasing the violence, retaining some necessary innocence. His mother had been a bastion of warmth and affection; Emma Snyder was the reason why Eric wasn’t a sociopath. Emma and Lynne and…. Eric smiled. “So Sam, whatdya see?”
The sound reverberated throughout the studio, but Eric had spoken softly, keeping his voice light. He wondered if Lynne and Renee were discussing more than trivial matters; they probably were, but it had been brokered by words of a certain weight. Not that Renee would tell Lynne everything, that wasn’t necessary. But then the women hadn’t threatened to do each other bodily harm. Eric smiled, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Light’s just about gone, but I did wanna show you what’ll be the newest painting in the show.”
Sam whipped around, staring at Eric. “You’re not selling it, are you?”
Eric laughed. “Marek would have my head, Lynne too. No, once it finds its way back here, I’ll give it to him.” Eric pointed at the pastor. “He can do with it what he likes. When I sketched them, I was mostly concentrating on him because I know Jane’s face like I know her mother’s.” Or yours, Eric wanted to say. “When I started painting, it was about Jane, I guess that’s a father’s prerogative. But eventually it was about Marek. And now, looking at it again, it’s all about him. This might be the first and probably one of the only paintings that my daughter doesn’t get all my attention. But,” Eric chuckled, “we’ll keep that between us.”
Sam nodded, but he was again distracted. Now he squinted at the painting, but it was nearly too dark to properly see. Eric would leave this in the studio, for he wanted to inspect it again in the morning. He wouldn’t see it for well over a year once it was packed with the rest and that made him a little sad. This painting and that of the orchard were two of his favorites and both would be missed. The nudes had been in storage since he’d completed them, plus most of them wouldn’t return. But this one, the blossoming trees, and of course Lynne on the stool; those Eric would be glad to see come home once they had been fully appreciated by all who cared to view them.
When painting hawks, Eric had never been bothered if he retained those pictures, they were a means to an end, both in expunging his alterations and possibly earning back what he’d spent on supplies. When he first painted Lynne busy with her hobbies, he hadn’t expected those pieces to get too far away, and he’d felt the same when painting the nudes. Yet nearly all of those pictures were already out of his hands, even if some were merely yards away in the storage room. Of course he was very proprietary about those of Lynne heavily pregnant, and all of her with Jane would stay right on this property. Well, maybe in several years he might exhibit them, or perhaps he would still feel overly protective. Some paintings were highly prized by the artist, but not all.
Not even the two abstract pieces in Minnesota; Eric had informed the Institute that even after Seth was discharged, they could keep the canvases. The man with whom Eric had spoken was greatly relieved, noting how much patients admired them. Eric did wish for Marek to see them, but if that never happened, at least Marek was pleased with this portrait. He had hugged Eric, then patted his back, laughing that he had never seen himself portrayed so boldly.
Eric didn’t think of his pastor with that adjective; Marek seemed at peace, yet the past lingered in his eyes. Perhaps that was what he’d meant, that Eric hadn’t shied away from hinting to the Pole’s youth. Marek’s English was superb, his accent not noting any particular European nation, but somehow his Polish heritage was present, or the waste and misery left behind on Polish soil. Concentration camps were mostly set in that country, as if Hitler thought he could conceal that evil. But Marek’s family hadn’t perished in a labor camp.
To only Eric, the pastor had confided that his mother would have wept at the painting, that the last time he’d seen her was in their kitchen; she was sending him on an errand. Eric would never reveal this to Lynne, but it had been said as a kind of sacrifice, or perhaps more like an offering. Marek’s tone had been wistful, but not depressed, as he and Eric had stood in the sunroom while Lynne and Jane were upstairs. Fran had already lost the twins when Eric shared this painting with its main subject; perhaps that too had loosened Marek’s tongue.
Sam sighed and Eric looked that man’s way. Sam’s hands were in his pockets, but he tapped his left foot not to any particular rhythm. Eric wondered if Sam and Renee had spoken about adoption, but perhaps it was too soon. They had only been reconciled for a brief time, yet, it seemed permanent. Sam had never been so affectionate toward Renee in the Snyders’ presence, and not until Jane had been put to bed had Sam shown any effect of the last month. Eric felt no awkwardness between himself and Sam, not even for how vociferous was their recent argument. Eric had actually put up his fists and he smiled, then chuckled. While human, he’d never possessed any violent capacity, but when provoked, perhaps it had been undeniable.
“What?” Sam sighed, taking his hands from his pockets. He cracked his knuckles, then gazed at the dusky sky. “Guess we should go in, too dark to see anything now.”
Eric nodded. “Our wives are probably wondering if we got lost out here.”
Sam cleared his throat. “Thank you, I mean, I meant to say something earlier, but….” Sam put out his right hand. “Thanks for give me the what-for.”
Eric grasped Sam’s hand, then clasped his other around it. “Anytime Ahern.”
Sam chuckled as Eric released Sam’s hand. Sam looked at his palm, then at Eric. “Would you’ve really thrown a punch?”
“Maybe. Probably would’ve broke my hand in the process. Then I never would’ve heard the end of it from Stanford.”
“What about Lynne?”
“Oh, she’d have told me I got what I deserved.” Eric laughed, thinking of the horror on Stanford’s face if he was ever informed. Eric flexed his right fingers, then backed away from Sam, swinging that arm several times in a circular motion. Then Eric cracked his knuckles. “That’s about the worst I can do, I think Stan flinches even when he hears me make the sound.”
“Like money going down the drain.” Then Sam shook his head. “That was crass, I apologize.”
“No, I mean, Stanford’s heart’s in the right place, but the bottom line isn’t too far from the point.”
Before, the bottom line had been about earning enough to pay for supplies and perhaps to continue fixing the house. But now the bottom line was like a line in the sand, for what did money matter when it came to expressing the beauty of life? It was too dark for Eric to see Pastor Jagucki’s eyes, but he’d had to capture them, he couldn’t let that moment escape without being noted. Jane’s blue eyes were bright, but she was so little. Then Eric smiled. All evening, once she had proved her crawling abilities, she had rested in Sam or Renee’s grasp. And she’d been very happy to be in those loving arms, unlike how she now fought being toted by either of her parents. Mobility was a fascination, but more important was the people she hadn’t seen in ages, or what to her was a long time.
“So, shall we?” Eric motioned to the studio door. “I bet there’s fresh coffee waiting.”
Sam headed to where Eric had pointed. He stopped just shy of the threshold, turning back to the easel. “You’re pretty talented Eric. First that blue barn and now those….” Sam sighed, shaking his head. “A helluva lotta something in that right arm of yours.”
“A lotta something’s right.” Eric gently patted his right elbow. “After you Sam.”
“Oh yeah.” Sam exited the studio and Eric was on his heels. They said nothing returning to the house, where warm diffused light illuminated the patio. Sam stepped in first and Eric followed, the gentle laughter of women stirring Sam’s chuckles. As Eric closed the French door, he caught the light’s reflection glittering on the ground. In a hearty tenor Sam spoke to his wife while Eric gazed into the darkness. Lynne stepped to his side and he smiled, then kissed her. Then they joined the Aherns who were still speaking in jovial tones as if the events of last month had never occurred.
In the early days of autumn, Eric painted his wife and child’s portrait amid golden trees and withering berry vines. Usually Eric waited until Jane was drowsy, otherwise she squirmed, wishing to be set on the ground. But in fading afternoon light, she would rest quietly in her mother’s arms while her father studiously set colors to canvases at a rate that made Lynne wonder. Seth had returned home and according to Laurie, the transition was a smooth one. Yet, Eric’s pace was feverish, and after Jane had been put to bed, he tried to appease Lynne’s curiosity. He didn’t feel his frantic work habits were tied into Seth’s return to New York. Something else was inspiring him.
It could be Jane, her mobility halted only by the boundaries erected by her parents. Jane would butt her head against the French doors, then pull herself onto chubby knees, placing her small hands against the panes, crying to go outside. In thick corduroy trousers, she crawled along the patio gravel until her hands ached from the rougher stones. She wanted to tackle the stairs, but Lynne had bought a baby gate, precluding that adventure, as Eric called it. Jane wasn’t always so headstrong, but now that she had mastered crawling, walking was the next hurdle, and Renee teased that Jane would be on her feet well before Christmas.
Eric had painted her in motion, usually from behind, for Jane was never still for long. He had been captivated by her rapid growth, which hadn’t translated into a need to nurse. Now Jane breastfed in the mornings, and usually before bedtime, otherwise taking a bottle or trying to drink from a cup. She spilled far more than she drank, making a mess on the kitchen floor, but Lynne didn’t complain. She and Eric had decided to forgo birth control and see what happened next.
Yet, the couple hadn’t shared that with the Aherns, for it seemed the idea of adoption had been pushed to a back burner. Lynne brought that up with Eric; did his recent spate of creativity have something to do with that issue? Her voice wasn’t anxious, which Eric found interesting. Before, when she expressed such queries, worry edged her tone. Now she was merely inquisitive.
As Eric locked the studio for the night, he gazed into the sky, a blaze of colors in the west, which if he wasn’t already late for dinner would make him turn right around and grab some clean brushes. Lynne had called for him twice, yet the sunset seemed extraordinarily beautiful, like the painting on the Aherns’ wall. Eric wished that picture was going to a new home, but other than prayer, he had little recourse. He and Sam were back on their usual footing, as were Lynne and Renee. But none of them had broached whether or not the Aherns were going to make a family together.
Reaching the patio, Eric glanced toward the house, seeing his wife and daughter approaching. Lynne stepped briskly, a smile on her face. “We were just coming to see if bandits had taken you away.”
Her tone was light, a blissful joy all over her. She was still the gorgeous woman he had wed; the baby in her arms was some of it, but inside was from where most of Lynne’s beauty emerged, stemming from an odd but true belief growing within a part of her no one would ever see. Not even a brilliant surgeon could probe the renewal of Lynne’s soul, and Eric walked her way, wondering if that was the impetus of his work. It wasn’t merely Jane he wanted to depict, but her mother, each so precious not only to Eric, but to God.
He kissed both of them, then pointed west. “Just admiring the sunset. I could never do justice to that sky.”
“You come pretty close.” Lynne nestled against his shoulder as Jane babbled. “Dinner’s ready, but it can wait another minute or two.”
Eric nodded, feeling a rising joy with his wife and their baby so close. How many times had he dreamed of this scenario, either in sleep or while flying, noting warm relations between various members of the animal kingdom. Now a family rested in his grasp and no painting would ever denote the utter peace derived from these two people, and the faith graced to all of them. From infancy Jane was being raised with the knowledge of Christ, a realization that her parents joked wasn’t much beyond their own understandings. All three were learning at the same time, but that wasn’t bad, perhaps the best way for parents to teach their child about such a weighty reflection.
“Tomorrow no painting,” Eric said softly. “Let’s go on a hike, we haven’t done that in ages.”
Lynne pulled away, staring at him. “A hike, are you serious?”
Jane began to chuckle as Eric nodded. “Sure. I’ll carry her and….”
“And we’ll go five hundred yards and fall over from exhaustion.”
Eric laughed, taking his daughter into his arms. “Now Jane, do you hear that? Your mama has no idea how strong she is from toting you around all day. We’ll go on a short hike and take a picnic lunch. Winter’s not far away and what will the girl here think of being cooped inside all the time?” Eric tickled Jane’s chin. “You won’t like it one bit, I imagine. We’ll have to put something over the French doors so you don’t break the panes, trying to escape.”
Eric and his daughter chuckled together, but Lynne didn’t join them. She took two steps away, arms hanging limply at her sides. Jane still giggled, but Eric moved toward his wife, then tenderly stroked her face. “Oh honey, I didn’t mean to….”
“Do you feel like it’s, I mean….” Lynne’s voice cracked. “Maybe that’s why you’ve been so busy.”
Eric shook his head. “I haven’t felt a single niggle. It’s something else honey, I don’t know what, but it’s not that.”
Eric led his wife into the house, shutting the French doors behind him. He set Jane on the floor, then walked Lynne to the sofa. Yet she didn’t sit. “Dinner’s gonna get cold,” she said.
“Dinner can wait, or at least until Jane starts yapping. Lynne, let’s talk about this.”
She closed her eyes, then sighed. Opening her eyes, she gazed at the painting of the orchard on the far wall. “How many times did we walk through those trees, imagining what our lives would be like, but we were so off the mark.” Lynne turned back to Eric. “I’ve tried to not think about it, or when I do, I just say it’ll be fine. I won’t be alone and you’ll come home, I know you will, and….”
“But we’re human Lynne.” Eric had a wry smile. “Or practically human. It’s okay to wonder, to have doubts.” Now Eric chuckled, picking up Jane, who had crawled around, but returned to where her parents stood in the middle of the living room. “I’ve been amazed at how blasé you’ve been about it. That’s not quite what I mean, but….”
“Eric, honestly, not until tonight have I felt uneasy. I think it was the sunset. It looked just like the one you painted for Renee and Sam and, and….” Lynne stroked her daughter’s soft cheek, then played with Jane’s lengthy curls. “I nearly asked her a few days ago when we were having lunch together. But she’d started to blink away tears and I just couldn’t, you know? They’re happy, I know they are, but what happened in August set them back.”
“Set back Sam you mean.”
Lynne nodded. “Renee talked mostly about Jane, or about Helene. I guess she’s been going to see Frannie quite often, instead of Sam going. Not that Fran needs the help, but maybe now there’s someone who understands Renee a little bit. That’s what Renee implied, right before she started to….”
Lynne wept and Eric put his free arm around her. Jane whimpered, trying to reach for her mother’s damp face. Lynne took a deep breath, then grasped her baby. “Let’s get you some dinner sweetie. Mama and Daddy are hungry too.”
Jane clapped her hands, another new trick that she was just starting to master. Eric had read that most babies didn’t clap until they were seven or eight months old, but a week shy of seven months, Jane could already clap with gusto, rarely missing. A proud father was tempted to think his infant daughter was gifted, but Eric often pondered if his unique genes played a part in Jane’s development. As the trio headed to the kitchen, Lynne told their daughter what a smart girl she was, and so beautiful. Jane babbled as if in agreement while Eric couldn’t stop from wondering if he was the only Snyder so affected.
A week later, Eric was in charge of Jane while Lynne went for lunch with Renee. Father and daughter poked about the garden, Jane strapped to Eric’s chest in a hiking pack Eric had recently purchased. Lynne had thought he was ridiculous, not the time of year to consider hikes, but Eric said he would tote Jane to prep himself for next spring. In 1963, the Snyders would make family treks, reviving an old pastime that Eric had so enjoyed with only Lynne. At first Jane protested being put into the pack, preferring to roam on her own. But Eric kept up a good pace, bouncing her as he strode around the yard, talking incessantly. Jane learned that her father had always loved to draw, but gardening had been an acquired hobby, in part to make sure that he and Lynne didn’t starve to death.
Eric told his daughter how poor they had been, but that buying this property had been essential, even if the house had been in a derelict state. The studio was well constructed and if not for the ample vegetables and fruits Eric tended, the young couple had lived on love. Eric didn’t hide much of his past from his infant daughter, revealing his earliest memories of flight, but concealing his troubled background. One day Jane would learn about Howard Snyder, but not until she was much older.
Jane gurgled in response, sometimes clapping when her father’s voice indicated an exciting occurrence, like when he met Jane’s mother, or the first time the couple had hiked in the orchard, or when they found this house, or rather, Eric chuckled, this acreage had claimed them. Both had been intrigued with the possibilities and the privacy. The seclusion was necessary, Eric said softly, because sometimes he had to go away and no one but Lynne could know.
Eric returned to the patio where he unstrapped the pack, taking Jane from the harness. Sitting in a chair, he put her on his lap, gently embracing her. “Someday Mommy might tell you that I had to go away, but I will come back sweetie, to both of you. Uncle Sam might need to look after me for a few days, but I promise you Jane, I will always come home.”
The baby stared at her father as if comprehending everything he said. Her blue eyes were wide and Eric had an immediate urge to paint her image as if the whole world’s truth rested in Jane’s enormous irises. They were exactly the color of Sam’s, which made Eric smile, then sigh. He caressed Jane’s face, then kissed her forehead. Then he cuddled her close, wondering how he had received such a tremendous blessing.
When Lynne returned, she found her husband and daughter in the sunroom, Jane in her high chair, Eric behind his easel. Lynne quietly observed them, aware that Eric knew of her presence, but not Jane. Then the baby turned around, laughing at her mother. Lynne approached them as Eric poked his head from around the canvas. “Hello Mama,” he said. “How was your lunch?”
“Fine. And how are things going here?”
“Well,” Eric began, “we chatted about the state of global politics and Jane suggested I should paint her looking so darn cute. That would usher in world peace without argument.”
Lynne kissed her baby, then her husband. “I must say, I can’t argue with that.” She smiled, but it was wan. “I’ll be back, need the ladies’ room.”
Eric followed her as far as the living room. “Everything all right?” he called.
Lynne didn’t turn back, shaking her head.
The couple waited until after Jane was asleep to talk; Lynne noted that while the Aherns weren’t ruling out adoption entirely, they had decided to wait until the new year to proceed, in part, Renee had tearfully revealed, out of respect for Simon and Andrew. Lynne had asked how long and Renee had shrugged, not providing a straight answer. Yet, Renee had implied that Sam hadn’t ruled it out, that in fact it had been the main basis for their reconciliation last month. He still wanted to adopt, but was leery of offending Fran and Louie. Renee had tried to temper her mild suspicion over that rationale, but the brassy redhead’s true feelings had spilled in her few tears and slightly bitter tone. Lynne sighed. “She doesn’t think he’ll actually go through with it. But she’s trying to keep an open mind.”
Eric gently shook his head. “I know he’s afraid of….” Eric paused, then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “He’s worried about not being a good father. He wants to give her this gift, but he doesn’t wanna….” Eric stood from the sofa, stepping to the doorway between the living room and the sunroom. He grasped the corner of the wall, staring toward the easel. “He thinks he’ll get angry, or he’ll not do it right. God, why in the hell did he ever go over there?”
Lynne joined her husband. “That’s exactly what Renee said, right before I left. She whispered it, I can’t even remember what we’d been talking about, oh Eric, her voice was so soft, like she didn’t want me to hear her, but she had to say it. All I could think about was Seth, which might seem strange, but both of them made that decision, not that they could’ve avoided it, but instead of waiting, they enlisted.” Lynne grasped her husband’s shoulders and Eric turned her way. “I’m so glad you couldn’t go.” She stared at his left foot, then into her husband’s eyes. “A blessing in disguise, but why’d they think it was necessary, why actively pursue something so violent?”
“I put my fists up that night I went over there.” Eric looked at his hands, then at his wife. “Something inside me was overruled by irrational thought, it’s crazy honey. When Sam and I talked in the studio, I told him Stanford would chew me out if he heard I’d done that. Or maybe he’d slap me himself.”
Lynne nodded. “You know what I’d have told you?”
Eric smiled. “That I’d deserved it. And I said that to Sam too.”
“Oh Eric, it just breaks my heart that Sam’s so skittish, he’d be a fantastic father.”
“You’re right, he absolutely would, and she’d make a terrific mother. But honey, something happened to him here.” Eric set his palm over Lynne’s heart. “Just like Seth, but it’s manifested differently in each. Like my father too. Why I wasn’t affected….”
Lynne put her hand over Eric’s. “You weren’t because your mother was a saint.”
Eric nodded. “She nearly was, I agree. But it’s more than that, because some men come back and have very few issues. And some are irreparably damaged. Not Sam and Seth, I mean.” Eric paused. “Seth’s gonna be a work in progress and I can’t honestly promise that he won’t be getting a visit from an errant hawk. He just might.” Then Eric smiled. “But Sam gained so much peace when Jane was born, like he was reborn. Some of that ground was lost in August, but not all of it, although maybe he thinks it was more. I don’t. I know him Lynne, I was the recipient of his, well, for lack of a better word, tenderness. That man puts on a big front, but he’s got one of the softest hearts.”
“Oh Eric, he does, Renee said that too. She said that he just needs to let down his guard, that he has so much to give. It was heartbreaking to hear in her voice all she couldn’t say, and all he can’t see about himself. And the worst part was that while she’s trying to be positive, I heard this hopelessness, that no matter what he said last month when she came home, the longer he puts it off, the less are the chances that he’ll eventually do it. And she knows this Eric, but she won’t say anything about it. She feels like she can’t push it because….”
Lynne began to cry and Eric held her close. He gazed at the back of the painting as if he could see through the canvas to Jane’s half-formed image on the other side. That was how Sam was seeing fatherhood, through a veil. Yet, it wasn’t protective, but limiting. Eric had no way to break that barrier; not even a hawk could speak to that obstruction.
As October sped along, Eric painted while Lynne baked and Jane scuttled across the length of the Snyder home. Lynne and Jane visited the Canfields and Helene was overjoyed for a mobile playmate. Fran chuckled that once Jane was on her feet, Lynne and Eric would have little time for cooking and art. The mothers laughed at their girls, the two years separating them not mattering to either child. Helene thought Jane was hilarious and Jane considered Helene a wonderful teacher.
The Snyders and Aherns shared a few dinners, but conversation centered around the coming holiday season, hard to ignore what with Halloween decorations in the stores. Jane was far too young for a costume, but Renee wondered about next year. Fran’s kids were going to be a variety of characters, even Helene wearing an old clown outfit probably handed down from Sally. Renee mentioned those children with no trace of sadness, but Lynne had to wonder, from how Sam wouldn’t look at his wife when she spoke.
One Monday afternoon, Renee and Sam joined the Snyders, but to Lynne’s consternation, Sam wanted to watch television. Since he and Renee arrived, Sam had been yammering about something to do with the Soviets. Eric turned on their black and white set, no use getting one of those newfangled color televisions for how little they watched it.
Lynne remained in the kitchen while Renee and the men gravitated to the TV, tucked in a corner of the living room. Jane gabbed in her high chair as Lynne made coffee, then Lynne noticed how quiet was the house, aside from Jane’s jabbering. “What’s happened?” Lynne called to the adults.
She waited for seconds, but no one responded. Jane grew more vociferous, then started clapping. Lynne caressed her daughter’s head, then grasped her small active hands. “I’ll be right back,” Lynne said. She kissed Jane’s cheek, then stepped to the kitchen doorway. “All right you three, what’s up?”
Eric met her where she stood. “Honey, the president’s just announced that the Russians have placed missiles in Cuba. Nuclear missiles.”
“What, are you serious, missiles in Cuba?”
Eric nodded, gripping her hands. “He said a blockade’s been enacted to turn back any ships with hazardous cargoes. Lynne, he’s talking about an attack on….”
She shook her head, squeezing his hands. “No, oh my God Eric, don’t even think such a thing!”
But as Jane’s babbles decreased, Lynne didn’t miss the gravity of President Kennedy’s voice or the unequivocal meaning of his words. The Soviet Union had nuclear warheads in striking range of America, for what purpose Lynne couldn’t fathom. Then the reason became all too clear; did the Soviets actually intend to attack The United States?
Lynne trembled, but Eric’s embrace removed her initial worries. They were on the West Coast, safe from such desolation. But what about Stanford and Laurie, Michael and Constance, and Seth? Seth had just come home and now this? Tears burned along Lynne’s cheeks, and not even Jane’s happy gurgles could halt her mother’s weeping. Then Eric led his wife back into the kitchen, comforting her behind their daughter’s high chair as Jane waved her arms, clapping soundly for a reason known only to her.
A flurry of long distance calls jammed telephone lines nationwide, but early in the hours of Tuesday the twenty-third Eric finally reached Stanford. An artist and his dealer spoke only for moments, but right off Stanford made it clear that regardless of what happened, he and Laurie were staying in New York. If the Soviets were crazy enough to fire those missiles, it wouldn’t only be the East Coast in danger.
By the end of Tuesday, Stanford’s words hung heavy in hearts all over the planet. Not since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nuclear weapons been detonated other than for test purposes. Yet that horrific devastation was clear in the minds of those who could recall those incidents, less than twenty years in the past. Lynne and Renee spoke about it when Renee was home from work; how could world leaders be so blind as to the very real consequences of such insane actions? Renee said that it was because those leaders were men, then she grew quiet. Clearing her throat, Renee then told Lynne to pray. At this point, it was all any of them could do.
Lynne and Eric did just that, aware they weren’t alone in that action. They went to church on Wednesday evening, finding St. Matthew’s packed. Pastor Jagucki gave a short sermon which Eric found very stirring for its brevity. The pastor said nothing about the Second World War, but his meaning drew straight from that event, and that people everywhere had a duty to seek peace. It would come from prayer, and perhaps in other manners. No longer were conflicts confined to a single nation or territory or even one continent. Technology encompassed the whole of Earth; no more were the days when one’s backyard was all a person knew.
Like millions of others, Eric and Lynne tried going about their usual activities, but everything was now touched by What if? Eric’s feverish pace had ground to a halt, but those collected paintings underlined the fragility of life, in what now was being coined the nuclear age. Eric and Sam spoke about the changes wrought since Korea, that while nuclear bombs had been available, there had never been a consideration to using such damaging weapons. But something had altered, perhaps only the public’s realization to the widespread possible deployment of these terrible armaments. It was one thing to read about the destruction of islands in the middle of vast oceans. But the ruin of an entire section of America was wholly different.
By Thursday evening, Eric had grown weary of watching television, reading the papers, or speaking with Sam, Stanford, and Laurie. Everything had been put on hold, which grated on Eric, for how two governments had effectively strangled their citizens’ lives. All it would take was one irrational man to make a phone call or push a button. Eric had no idea how Khrushchev and Kennedy were keeping in touch, but he hoped they were. The nightly news carried little insight to exactly how those leaders were talking, but they must be. Suddenly Eric felt inspired. He found his wife giving Jane a bath, then told those ladies he would be in the studio. Lynne gave him a look. “It’s awfully dark out there.”
Eric nodded. “I know, I probably won’t be out long. I just need to….” He squatted beside his wife, then gazed at their daughter. Jane was splashing in the tub, impervious to the deep gloom that had settled over all of the adults in her midst.
“Go on,” Lynne said. “Or you really will be painting in the dark.”
He nodded, caressing Jane’s head, then his wife’s. Eric set a quick kiss on Lynne’s cheek, then stood, heading from the bathroom.
When he reached the studio, stars were starting to twinkle in the sky. Eric could make out the storage building, and turning back, the house blazed with light. Yet, he needed to set something to canvas, although he didn’t wish to work in the sunroom. He wasn’t sure what bubbled inside him, other than a sense of purpose. Perhaps this was how President Kennedy felt, his hands just as tied. Yet Lynne had been right, it was too dark to work. Taking another look upwards, Eric admired the night sky, chuckling at himself. Then he walked around the studio, standing in front of the storage building. Something tugged at him from within, so he pulled the key from his pocket, opened the door, then flipped on the light. There on an easel was the portrait of Marek and Jane.
Stepping into the small building, Eric couldn’t look away from his daughter. She wasn’t that small now, even if he’d painted this a few months before. Before made Eric shiver, for all that had occurred since this painting, right up to that very evening. Jane was inside, probably being dressed for bed, with no idea what was happening in Washington and Moscow. She had no clue as to what others had suffered since, she was only a baby. She also had no manner to discern all that had occurred to the man holding her, but for the first time, Eric had an inkling, and it made him shudder. Marek’s brown eyes glowed with an eerie knowledge, propelling Eric to step closer to the canvas. Leaving just one foot between himself and the painting, Eric peered at what he had created, but seeing far more than layers of paint. In Marek’s chocolate brown eyes, Eric saw a multitude of horrors, more than any one person should realize.
Yet, instead of being repulsed, Eric traced around Marek’s eyes, sensing how such misery could, over time, become beauty. Eric had translated something similar, yet carrying much less emotional weight, when he painted the blue barn. Sam and Laurie and Stanford had asked how Eric did it, and there was no verbal manner in which to answer that question; Eric had simply picked up a brush, dabbed it onto his palette, then transferred those feelings onto canvas. He had done the same when painting Marek and Jane, but while Jane’s eyes held only joy, Marek’s possessed a deep well of sorrow hinting to the unmitigated catastrophe that somehow that man had overcome. Suddenly Eric stepped back, in awe of such tragedy having been healed. The loss of Marek’s entire family didn’t prey on that man’s mind, or within his soul. Marek’s soul was protected by Christ.
The last two nights Eric and Lynne had made love, but not as they had been for the last few weeks. Lynne had purposely used her diaphragm, telling her husband she didn’t feel the timing was right to actively try for another baby. Her unspoken message had been clear and Eric hadn’t argued. The world was still a terrible place, nothing was certain. Eric had wondered if Sam’s fears about becoming a father would be exacerbated by all that was happening, but how could this compare with previous disasters in human history? If Khrushchev gave the word, would the destruction of America’s East Coast be worse than The Holocaust in Europe? Would it be more evil than what sat plainly in Marek’s brown eyes?
For the first time since President Kennedy’s announcement on Monday night, Eric didn’t worry about his future, or Lynne’s, or Jane’s. Perhaps this was another step on his journey as a Christian, or as an artist, or simply as a man. If the very worst occurred, it wouldn’t be the absolute end of the world, for the worst had been recycled time and again. In just that century, two world wars had ravaged across much of the globe, millions of lives lost, so much desolation accrued. But in a small town on the West Coast, Eric had fashioned beautiful paintings; he couldn’t deny that. Assuming Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a way out of this mess, by the end of November, this painting, along with others, wouldn’t even be where Eric could see them; they would be in New York, then onto London, then to…. Eric smiled, the first real joy he’d felt all week. Making love with his wife had been a balm, but actual happiness rumbled inside him, in part from peace, and from the truth within Marek’s eyes. If Eric learned the facts one day, they wouldn’t be any more vile than what he had implied within that man’s gaze. Yet, anguish wasn’t the essence of what Eric had portrayed. Love covered all that wretchedness, so great a love that grief and loneliness and abject despair hadn’t been able to stay.
Then Eric shivered; whatever had sent Seth to Korea was a similar kind of devastation, yet Seth hadn’t been able to fight himself free. Eric wondered if perhaps Seth had been molested, but Seth and Laurie were so close, if that had been the case, Laurie would know. Or maybe not. Then Eric considered the figures at Stanford and Laurie’s apartment. That man and woman had been fashioned by someone with a tremendous will to live and to love. Nothing dark clouded those statues, from their hopeful stances to their vibrant hues. Two vivid blues of differing shades enhanced those figurines; Seth hadn’t made them in the throes of depression, but in youthful optimism. But that optimism had been short-lived. Laurie had mentioned Seth wasn’t exactly soldier material, that he’d had a few issues even before he’d enlisted. What had he thought going to Korea would accomplish, and once there, what had he seen or done that had so tarnished his soul?
Again Eric gazed at Marek, but not at his face. This time Eric studied how tenderly Jane rested in the pastor’s grasp, almost with as much affection as Eric held his daughter. Marek had never spoken of a lover, maybe a woman had been left behind in Britain or in…. Marek had been a teenager during the war; might he have lost a girlfriend alongside his family? Eric ached to know, then he sighed, feeling chilled. He turned off the light, locked the storage building, making his slow way back to the house with as many questions, albeit about different subjects, than as when he had headed outside.
In the morning, as soon as the sun was high enough in the sky, Eric went to the studio. He painted until lunchtime, then shared that meal with his wife and child. Lynne didn’t ask questions, but he smiled at her, speaking to Jane in a rather cheerful tone. Lynne grinned at him, then inquired about his afternoon plans. Eric wiped his mouth with a napkin, then took Jane from her high chair. He leaned back in his seat, bouncing the baby on his knee. “Actually, I think I’m done painting for the day. You mind if I run over to St. Matthew’s?”
Lynne stared at him. “No, I don’t mind.” Then she smiled. “That’s a bit unusual.”
“Unusual times we’re living in. I need to ask Marek a few questions.”
Jane laughed, but her mother’s smile slipped away. Lynne fidgeted with her silverware, then she stood, taking her plate and the baby’s to the sink. Then Lynne gripped the sides of the counter. “Eric, what difference does it make?”
“I need to know.”
She turned around, blinking away tears. “Why?”
“Because the world’s on the brink of disaster and I need to know how he….”
Lynne waved her hand, then she nodded. “Whatever you feel you need to do.”
Eric stood, then walked her way. Jane babbled and Lynne took the baby from her father. Jane continued squawking, not seeing the tears falling down her mother’s face. Eric brushed away that liquid, then kissed his wife’s damp cheek. “I won’t be long,” he said softly. “He might not even be there.”
“I bet he is,” Lynne warbled.
She nodded, then sighed, wiping her face with the back of her free hand. “You didn’t go outside last night to paint.”
Eric chuckled. “Well no, but I did paint this morning.”
“What is it of?”
Eric smiled. “Something that might end up in Minnesota.”
Lynne nodded, then took a deep breath. She let it out slowly, then switched Jane to her other hip. “Well take your time, with Marek I mean. I think Jane and I are gonna sit down and see if someone’s hungry.”
Eric caressed Lynne’s face. Since Monday she had been trying to entice Jane to nurse more, with some success. Eric knew it had nothing with Lynne using her diaphragm; this was solely to ease a mother’s aching, bewildered heart. Jane had no idea about world events, but Lynne knew all too well about the possibility that could occur.
Yet, that tragedy wasn’t set in stone. Eric smiled, kissed his wife, then his daughter. “You two have a quiet afternoon. I’ll probably be home before she wakes up. And if you’re both sleeping, maybe I’ll spend the rest of the day in the studio.”
“Better that than staring at the television,” Lynne said.
“Indeed it is.” Eric kissed her again, then stepped back. Lynne took their daughter into the living room, leaving her husband to clear the table. After that chore was attended, Eric found his family on the sofa, Jane nestled against her mother. Lynne’s eyes were cloudy, but she smiled at him. Wordlessly Eric said his goodbye, leaving through the kitchen door.
When Marek woke that morning, a mild headache lingered at his temples. It had been a vicious throbbing for the last two days, only abating on Wednesday night when he led a packed service in what to him wasn’t more than prayers beseeching peace. He hadn’t labored significantly over the short sermon, hadn’t wrung his hands choosing the few hymns. He had been relieved for a brief respite from that miserable headache, which then plagued him all day on Thursday. And now, Friday morning, it was trying to decide whether to abate or again pound the back of his brain, cruelly crawling forward until all he could do was close his eyes and pray for healing.
As he got out of bed, then dressed, the ache teased, flashing pain alternating with no discomfort at all, making Marek wonder for how much longer could he cope. He also pondered if two world leaders felt this unwell, maybe Kennedy, but as for Khrushchev…. Then Marek berated himself, for it was unfair to automatically label the Soviet as the villain. The Americans must have provoked such an action, but he might be the only one in that small town to think that way. Marek smiled, reaching the kitchen, then starting a pot of coffee. He had considered making a cup of tea, but perhaps a stronger brew was necessary.
He ate a light breakfast, the headache coming and going. He didn’t take any aspirin, for it hadn’t made a dent previously. When Carla Kenny arrived, he almost sent her home, for he didn’t feel at all like doing pastoral work, but he saw in her anxious eyes the need for some kind of break from the recent week’s gloom. He smiled as the pain began to inch its way toward his temples, where all week long it had served blow after crushing blow. Those men had better decide some sort of conclusion, Marek thought to himself, or one transplanted Pole would consider drastic measures.
By mid-day, Mrs. Kenny fixed lunch for Marek and herself, then returned to her desk. Marek had forced himself to eat, feeling sick to his stomach as pain gripped his head like a vice. He knew the source and felt somewhat ashamed that even all these years how greed for power, coupled with a stiff dose of stupidity, could still affect him. He’d been assaulted by similar headaches when in seminary as the Soviets took over Poland. They were better than the Nazis certainly, but Marek hadn’t missed an iron fist being closed tightly around all of Eastern Europe. When he fled to Britain, the headaches had stayed behind; this was the first time he’d been so afflicted outside his home nation. Not even when leaving Maggie had he felt this wretched. Her rejection had hurt his heart, he wouldn’t deny that, but the gluttony and blindness of governments seemed to grate on him more, which he knew was a remnant of growing up during the war. To Marek, there had been only one conflict, and regardless of what others lay on the horizon, no other confrontation would ever usurp it. Not even what Kennedy and Khrushchev were embroiled in, for while a nuclear attack would be abominable, the atrocities perpetrated on his native soil were untouchable for their evil.
Yet, he couldn’t say that to anyone in this country, for it would sound like he had never gotten over those days, which he had, even in the midst of a now raging headache that nearly made him wish to be dead. Marek needed to lie down, sleep off what he could, then hope that when he woke, two men, one not much older than he, would have come to a reasonable answer to a terrible situation. But it wasn’t the worst that had happened, if it happened, he reminded himself. The last news he’d heard on television wasn’t promising, but even while feeling so poorly, Marek knew that God was in control.
Marek left the kitchen, finding Carla busy behind her typewriter. She looked up and he nodded to her. “I’m going to lay down for a bit, see if I can’t get this….”
Before he could finish, a knock interrupted. Carla stood, but Marek motioned for her to remain seated. “I’ll get it,” he said quietly.
“Pastor, you’re in no shape to….”
He smiled, but it made his head throb more. “No, I’ll just tell them another time.”
“No you won’t,” she frowned as another knock resonated. “You’ll….”
Marek stepped away, smiling through the pain, for she was right. He probably wouldn’t send them away, unless it was Mrs. Harmon, complaining about the depleted mums along the far side of the church. Those flowers had bloomed, but not to that woman’s high standards, and Marek had even gone so far as to instruct the gardener to add some fertilizer. As Marek neared the front door, he slowed his steps; perhaps whoever had knocked might turn back, for usually parishioners would enter the church unannounced, calling for the pastor, or Mrs. Kenny if they were there on church business. It was slightly odd for someone to knock, but that might make it easier for Marek to excuse himself, which he would if he wasn’t truly needed.
Reaching the double doors, he opened one, then smiled despite the brutal ache coursing through his head. “Eric, hello.” Marek spoke as if no pain existed. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, but how are you? Is this a bad time?”
Marek shook his head, which didn’t ease the pain, in fact, it made him nauseous. But he continued to smile, yet, he squinted. “No, not a bad time at all. Please, come inside.”
The painter loitered just outside the doors. “No, you look, well, awful.” Then Eric flashed a brief grin. “You look like Jane did a few months ago when she made us all suffer. I’ll come back another time.”
Marek almost nodded as a wave of pain engulfed him so furiously he thought he would fall over. There was nothing for him to grasp other than the side of the door, but that would have looked odd. “No actually, come in,” he muttered. Then he cleared his throat, which reverberated like a gong through his brain. Slowly he stepped back, but he did grip the edge of the door. “But let’s find ourselves some seats. I’ve been fighting a headache for days now.”
“Are you sure, I mean….”
Marek blinked, seeing two Eric Snyders standing just inside the vestibule. As those figures merged into one, the pain subsided long enough for Marek to nod. “Yes, of course. Would you like some coffee?”
“Only if you’re having a cup.”
Marek took deep breaths, then smiled as pain smashed into the front of his brain like waves crashing into the cliffs of Dover. But these waves weren’t fast, permitting the pastor brief snatches where there was no pain at all. Now his smile was wide as he heard Mrs. Kenny approach, asking if she could make a fresh pot of coffee. Marek nodded as Eric asked for a biscuit, to which Carla Kenny sighed. Then all three walked into the church kitchen, Marek letting the other two lead the way.
Ten minutes later the men were seated alone, mugs of steaming coffee and a plate of cookies between them. Marek’s headache continued to flirt at his temples, but as Eric made small talk, mostly about his daughter, the pain didn’t seem as bad as earlier. Marek was pleased to hear that Jane was well; it was a relief to consider something other than what had gripped the consciousness of nearly everyone Marek had encountered. Small children were safe from this horror, about the only ones untouched.
Then Eric cracked his knuckles, which to Marek echoed like gunshots. The pain flared, then launched a frontal assault, but Marek stared at the slightly younger man in front of him. “So Eric, what brings you here today?”
Eric leaned forward, taking another cookie from the plate. He munched thoughtfully, then swallowed. “I was gonna paint last night, but it was too dark out to see. Lynne thought I’d lost my mind, well, she didn’t say that but….” He smiled, finished the cookie, then sipped his coffee. “It was too late to start something, although I did get around to a little activity this morning. Haven’t been able to do much other than stew all week, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
“No, you’re probably not.” Marek’s voice was even, but the pain was intense, and he closed his eyes briefly to no avail. He opened his eyes, again finding two Eric Snyders. “I haven’t been able to concentrate either, I must say.”
“Your sermon on Wednesday would bely that fact.”
Now Marek smiled, in part from Eric’s astute tone, and that the pain had diminished. “Well, I didn’t work too hard on that piece, I’ll admit.”
“No, I suppose you didn’t need to.”
The silence following Eric’s last word hung like a thick mist in the kitchen. Marek found it hard to breathe, although his head didn’t ache. He wasn’t sure if the lack of oxygen was the reason, although as he tried to draw air into his lungs, he found his brain was still pain-free. He marveled at this until he choked. Then the pain returned, as did breath into his chest.
But oddly, Eric didn’t ask if he was all right. He took another cookie, dipped it into his coffee, then ate the whole biscuit in one bite. Marek watched those actions as if he was standing outside of himself, observing how Eric didn’t make eye contact, chewing with his mouth closed, while the man across heaved air in and out of his mouth. Marek was that man, attempting to place oxygen into himself, but still it was difficult. Then Marek noticed that again Eric was going to crack his knuckles. For some reason, Marek didn’t wish to hear that sound, and as he slipped back into himself, he grabbed Eric’s hands before the painter had a chance to do so.
They stared at each other. “Does that bother you?” Eric asked softly. Then he smiled. “It drives Stanford nuts, like I’m purposely ruining my hands.”
Marek shook his head, then he grinned. “It’s just that I have this awful headache and….” But suddenly the pain was gone. He blinked several times, releasing Eric’s hands, then placing his own along his temples. They didn’t ache, they didn’t even twinge. They felt as usual, no tenderness or throbbing or pain of any sort. Then Marek smiled widely, clasping his hands in front of him on the table. “Actually, try it, cracking your knuckles I mean.”
“Are you sure?”
The sound resonated through the kitchen and Marek could hear Carla pause in her typing. But there was no lingering effect within Marek other than a brief flash of if from thousands of miles away Stanford Taylor could sense what his most talented client had just done. Hopefully not, Marek chuckled inwardly. Stanford was probably ruing the possible catastrophe.
“Are you all right?” Eric’s voice was still soft. “Pastor?”
Again their eyes met, but this time Marek Jagucki didn’t see Eric Snyder. He saw his father, or was it his mother? Perhaps it was his older brother Dominik, his younger sister Ania, or…. A momentary pain seeped all through him, for in those brief seconds, Eric’s eyes reminded Marek of…. Then Marek smiled, for that memory was so faint, as if he had willed it into non-existence. His parents and siblings’ images were strong, those of other relatives too. He never forgot them, their lives were woven all through his. He carried the hopes and dreams of so many, his entire extended family wiped out in one stroke, but still living within the guise of one man. Strange that he didn’t get these paralyzing headaches more often, he wondered, fully aware he needed to give Eric an answer. It was only Eric sitting across from Marek, no one else still alive whom Marek loved.
“I’m…fine,” the pastor answered slowly. Then he shook his head, but no ache accompanied. “Actually, I’ve felt awful all week. Right before you arrived, I was going to try to sleep.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Eric scooted his chair away from the table. “I’ll go now, let you get to….”
Marek leaned forward. “No, it’s past, the pain I mean.” Then Marek shivered, he couldn’t help it. Yes, the pain was gone, but something, or someone, had been laid like a ghost at his feet. Eric’s eyes were suddenly a reminder to a moment that Marek never considered. He stared at the painter’s face, but Eric looked no differently than the last time they had spoken, which wasn’t on Wednesday evening. Perhaps it was last Sunday, before this whole crazy business with Cuba began. Or was made known to the public, Marek allowed.
“What do you see, what’re you looking for?” Eric asked.
Now Marek smiled. “You remind me of some…one.” Was the resemblance to a person, or a thing, Marek wondered. Or perhaps both.
“From Britain or….” Eric paused. “Poland?”
“Definitely of home.” Marek took a deep breath, then he smiled widely. “So Eric, what brought you here today?”
The painter glanced at the plate of cookies, then to his coffee cup. Finally he met the pastor’s gaze. “I spent much of last night staring at the painting of you and Jane.” Eric sighed, then nearly cracked his knuckles again, making both men laugh. Then Eric stood, pushing his chair up to the table. He leaned against the far kitchen counter, then moved to the open door. Closing it most of the way, he returned to his spot along the counter. Then he stared at the pastor. “I wondered about your sermon on Wednesday. It was perfect, you know.”
“Well, thank you. Again, I didn’t spend much time on it.”
Eric nodded. “Like I said before, you didn’t need to.” Briefly Eric gripped himself, then he shook out his arms. “I painted that one of you and Jane like I do all my works, or most of them. I put what I feel onto the canvas, then later I see what’s there. And sometimes I see even more after a few weeks or months have passed. Last night, last night I saw….” Eric hesitated, then he spoke. “I saw what happened to you in Poland. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude on your past, but I saw it and when set alongside all that’s happening now….”
Marek nodded, unable to speak, but deep relief flooded his heart. No one knew, other than one Lutheran minister back home, for Marek had barely been able to speak of that day, or not fully. Over several months Pastor Nowak had slowly drawn the truth from a traumatized teenager. But one concealed element that Marek had never shared with anyone now lingered on the tip of his tongue.
Stepping to where the pastor sat, Eric pulled out the closest chair from the table. He sat down, but left a few feet between them. He started to speak, then seemed to reflect upon what he had planned to say. Then Eric took a deep breath as if gathering the necessary courage. In those seconds, Marek wondered to which part Eric would inquire first. If it was to his lost family, perhaps that would be easier. If it was to…. If somehow Eric had discerned that other point, Marek wasn’t sure how he would react. But Marek couldn’t talk; if Eric wished to bring all of this into the open, he would do it alone.
As that thought ran through the Pole’s head, he began to chuckle, then laughter spilled from him. The typewriter again stopped, then Mrs. Kenny’s footsteps could be heard rushing down the corridor. Marek gazed at the closed doorway, which then opened, with the befuddled secretary staring at him. “Are you all right Pastor?”
Eric turned around as Carla tapped her foot, sounding much like her typewriter, or when Eric had cracked his knuckles. But instead of making Marek’s head pound, his laughter broadened, for it was true what he had seen that day twenty years ago. It had saved his life, which now led to this day in America, sitting near the only man who might understand. Yet how was that possible, or were they all mad? Then Marek had one more belly laugh. Madness was in Washington D.C., in Moscow, and in Cuba. In that simple church kitchen grace reined, no other way to describe it.
“I’m fine Mrs. Kenny, just fine. Sorry for interrupting your work.”
She gazed suspiciously at him, then at Eric. Then she slowly walked away, although Marek could still hear her footsteps. When those were gone, he stood, closing the door firmly. He retook his seat, then glanced at the painter. Those eyes, how had Marek missed those eyes? Perhaps Jane had precluded the pastor from seeing anything else, or the paintings had stolen his attention, or…. “How long,” he said quietly. “How long have you known?”
Eric took a breath, then let it out. “Like I said, I saw it last night. I felt a little, well, dumb, although perhaps it wasn’t something I truly wanted to see.”
“Not many do, too much for most to take.”
Eric nodded. Then he allowed the hint of a smile. “And Pastor, what do you see?”
For a second, Marek flinched. Then he chuckled, inhaling deeply. He let it out, then leaned toward Eric. “I see something in your eyes Eric, something very familiar to me. Have your eyes always looked this way?”
The tone Marek used was gentle, also probing. To his surprise, Eric didn’t cringe. “Not always Pastor. Sometimes they’re very different.”
Marek nodded, gazing down at Eric’s feet. Since he’d met this man, Marek had taken an interest in him, also his wife, and of course their beautiful baby. But now Marek studied Eric’s left foot, then his right. The shoes were the same, but the way Eric turned his left foot inwardly, it was as if he was trying to obscure something.
Then the men’s eyes met; Eric nodded, then smiled. “My left foot was damaged when I was young. My father caused it. But it, well, it’s been healed.” Then Eric laughed. “That was the beginning of my search for faith, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
Marek didn’t inquire about the cause of the deformity, but he smiled. “Sometimes faith needs a long dormant season.”
“Indeed it does. And sometimes it springs forth without warning.” Then Eric chuckled. “Like daffodils. Yours didn’t bloom for months.”
“Yes. I thought Mrs. Harmon was going to haul me to the police.”
Both men laughed. Then Eric spoke. “Your words on Wednesday. Maybe they took you little time to craft, but to me they were significant.”
“Much like your paintings.”
Eric smiled. “Indeed.” He leaned back in his chair, straightened his legs, then bent his knees at an equal stance. “Pastor, I just wanted to….” Eric stopped, then stood. Then he leaned against the counter again. “I just wanted to thank you for Wednesday, for what you said. No matter what happens, we’re all in God’s care.”
Marek gazed at the man across from him, then again peered at Eric’s eyes. “Please, call me Marek.”
It was all the pastor could say, but Eric nodded. “Marek it is. Well, I should be getting home. Lynne’s probably wondering what happened to me.”
Those words hung in the air, what Eric hadn’t asked outright, but perhaps now it wasn’t necessary. Would Marek ever inquire about the painter’s eyes; he wasn’t sure. But now every time Marek gazed at this man, that would be between them, not as a secret but some other binding force. Maybe they never would speak of it, or maybe…. “I’m sure she’s aware how time slips away.” Marek’s tone was light. “Or maybe she’s making one of those delicious pies.”
“If she is, shall I call you with an invite to dinner?”
Marek nodded without thinking, then he smiled at himself. “Please do, unless it would be an imposition.”
The pastor expected the painter to smile politely, but Eric wore a thoughtful gaze. “Your presence at our table would never be cause for concern.”
Now a lump formed at the base of Marek’s throat, although it wasn’t painful. It harbored a portent that if accepted might significantly modify the relationship between the parties. Marek stared at Eric’s eyes, seeking reception of such an accord, which would be more lasting than what would hopefully be realized between America and the Soviet Union. Eric’s hearty nod gave Marek his answer.
“Well then, consider it a deal, unless Mrs. Snyder has other plans.”
Eric smiled brightly. “I’m sure Lynne would absolutely agree, not to mention Jane’s endorsement. I think she’s missing her Polish lessons.”
Marek’s heart throbbed just a little, then he smiled warmly. “You go home, then let me know. If another evening’s better….”
“Let’s just say six tonight, or would earlier be….”
“Whatever works for you all.”
“All right,” Eric chuckled. “Let’s say five, then we can spend more of the evening talking. Or maybe the mood will strike and you’ll find yourself posing again with my daughter. That portrait of you both won’t be around for much longer. I think I’ll need another to take its place.”
Marek nodded, pleased not only for the dinner invitation, or the opportunity to be painted. He eagerly wished to be included in the Snyder family for a multitude of reasons, the main being the chance to better understand exactly why God had spared his life and the irregular manner in which he had done so.
All week Renee had worked nights, which had facilitated the Aherns attending morning mass, which they did not usually do. Since Monday, they had trooped to St. Anne’s along with many other parishioners who also didn’t normally find themselves at church except on Sundays. Sam prayed for a peaceable end to the unfathomable situation, and Renee did too. She also prayed that somehow this would push Sam over the edge about adoption.
Then she asked God to forgive her for using such an incident to further her hopes, but by Friday, as she and Sam knelt in their pew, Renee wondered if this whole mess with the Russians was God’s way of telling her no. Since Monday, Sam had distinctly pulled back from the idea of having a family, which in a way didn’t surprise Renee. In a brief conversation with Lynne on Wednesday, Renee learned her friend was having second thoughts about adding to their family. Not that Lynne felt the world was going to end up in another global conflict, but with such animosity stirred and the most violent weapons poised, was it right to…. Lynne hadn’t been able to end her sentence, for which Renee had been thankful. For if Lynne was rethinking having another baby, perhaps there was no hope for Renee and Sam.
As the couple returned to their seats, Renee wanted to squeeze her husband’s hand. There hadn’t been any time for cuddling for she came home late and exhausted, then they rose for church, a tacitly agreed upon way to start the day. Mass usually eased Renee’s mind, settling her heart, but right now her soul was torn, and there seemed no way to breech the awful possibility of yet another world war. That’s what would happen if President Kennedy and…. Renee wasn’t sure what to call Khrushchev; was he a premier or…. He wasn’t a Prime Minister, that was Harold Macmillan, the leader of Great Britain. Surely that man had a hand in what was going on, but ultimately it was between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Renee prayed for God to strengthen her president. Then she gazed at her husband. Renee wanted to ask God to soften Sam’s heart, but if that wasn’t according to his will…. Since summer, Renee had sought only God’s will. She couldn’t ask for any more than that.
The rest of the service continued as usual, but Renee felt detached, although previous mornings had brought her a modicum of peace. Today all she could think about was if like Lynne, Sam had decided that even adopting a child wasn’t for them. Which, compared to what Lynne was considering, was actually silly; it was one thing to actively not bring another life into this rather crazy world, but orphans needed mothers and fathers, and here were Renee and Sam. Then Renee caught herself; this couldn’t be about her. The words she’d spoken about the twins still haunted, even though she knew her thoughts hadn’t caused that summer’s tragedy. That too had been God’s will, a bitter pill, but then if President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev didn’t figure out a solution, things would get so much worse.
Then Renee thought about Laurie and Stanford, and Seth. None of them had met Seth, but now most times when Renee considered the New Yorkers, Seth Gordon was lumped among them. Sam and Laurie had spoken yesterday morning, then Renee smiled, for while at first Sam had sounded skittish, within moments Sam’s tone was like he was chatting with Eric. They hadn’t talked about Seth, that would have made for awkward conversation. Laurie had just wanted them to know that all was well, which might have seemed strange, but these were bizarre times. At any moment, the eastern half of the country could be blown to kingdom come, and who could imagine the counter-strikes in Europe? Renee remembered how, as a young teen, the daily news about the war colored every part of her life, from rationing to a pervasive anxiety displayed by all of her adult relatives. Some of her uncles had served, one had died. But until nearly the end, the armaments were far less damaging than what now was sitting on an island off the coast of Florida. In twenty years, total annihilation had become the planet’s reality, and it wouldn’t take years of combat, but mere seconds. Renee, Sam, and their families were safe in the west, or most of their loved ones. But what about Laurie, Stanford, and Seth?
Then Sam gently squeezed her hand. “Honey, Renee?” She looked at him, the service was over. Renee didn’t recall taking communion, then she shivered; would God consider that a sin? But her thoughts had been with her beloveds, which did include those New Yorkers. And, she sighed, as Sam led them down the aisle, with children that needed parents, regardless if the world was about to end.
Outside the church, a stiff breeze blew, and Renee pulled her coat closed. Sam drove them home, but they didn’t speak. When they reached the house, Renee waited for Sam to pull into the driveway, but instead he parked along the street. She looked at him. “Why’d you park here?”
Gripping the steering wheel, Sam didn’t meet her gaze. “Gotta run over to the hospital.” Then he stared at her. “But I’ll be back before you leave for work.”
“Oh, okay.” Renee grabbed her purse, then got out of the car. She shut the door and started for the house. Halfway there, she turned back. Sam remained in the driver’s seat.
The wind stiffened and she wished she had fastened her coat. She stood still for a few seconds, then just as she took a step, Sam exited the car, shut his door, then headed her way.
She wasn’t sure if she should wait for him. But she did, feeling like an announcement was imminent. It was how he gazed at the ground, his hands deep in his pockets. When he met her eyes, his were downcast. Renee bit the inside of her cheek, willing herself not to cry there on the front lawn. She knew what he wanted to tell her like she knew her own name.
Maybe he was right, maybe it was for the best. Maybe all he’d said when she came back home just weeks ago was only for that moment. Renee blinked away stinging tears that now readily streamed from her eyes. By the time Sam reached her, it was hard for her to breathe properly.
But he didn’t say those words in full view of their neighbors. He helped her into the house, got her a glass of water, sat her on the sofa, then tenderly explained that while he loved her, and was so sorry, he simply couldn’t consider…. Not at this time, his voice tender and contrite, nor was he sure if there might ever be a time when he wanted to…. Renee blocked out the actual sentences which sliced her heart into pieces. She wept, for that was natural, and she told him she understood, which she did. And finally she said that she loved him, for that too remained true. Renee never argued, never complained. This was God’s will, she said to herself over and over. If Frannie could accept the loss of twin sons, Renee swallowed amid bitter, frosty tears, then this too would eventually pass.
In New York, Stanford couldn’t concentrate. Every time something work-related entered his brain, immediately he lost the ability to focus, which had at first terrified him for that was how his mother had started to lose her mind. But Laurie complained of the same and Eric wasn’t painting and…. And now a few days into this strange new world, how Stanford thought of it, what was the meaning of life if two pig-headed leaders couldn’t come up with a diplomatic answer to peace?
For the first time, Stanford had put world events ahead of everything else. The war hadn’t bothered him and he wasn’t thinking about Korea. Like Marek Jagucki, when someone mentioned war, Stanford assumed they meant a conflict from two decades past. Maybe Laurie considered Korea, if only for Seth. But in the early 1940s, Stanford had been an adult and thankfully his father had kept him out of the fighting. Yet that event hadn’t touched Stanford the way this missile crisis now did, as some of the papers were calling it. The Cuban Missile Crisis had turned into a watershed for Stanford Taylor, and if, God willing, somehow they all got past it, his life might never be the same.
For the first time since his mother had become ill, Stanford was glad she had no idea what was happening. Then Stanford had considered Jane Snyder, which at first had bothered him, just in that previously he only thought about her if Laurie or Agatha mentioned her. Jane was seven months old, but for the rest of her life, nuclear war would hover like a mushroom cloud on the horizon. If it didn’t happen now, and Stanford certainly hoped it wouldn’t, it could happen later, at any given moment when one national figurehead decided he didn’t like the color of that morning’s sunrise. It would probably be something that arbitrary, and asinine, Stanford fumed, staring out of his office window into a skyline that could be blown to bits within a matter of seconds. Americans had never suffered devastation within their own country, other than at Pearl Harbor, but suddenly desolation was merely miles off the Florida Keys, aimed right for perhaps the very spot where time after time Stanford had gazed at this city. Then Stanford wondered if some of his clients often considered these sorts of scenarios. He smiled as immediately a few names came to mind who coveted these kinds of moments, using them to further their art. Then he was curious; what did Eric make of all this, and was that man happy or worried that he had brought a child into such a mess of a world?
What sort of life lay ahead for little Jane? Would it matter if she carried her father’s artistic genes or her mother’s medical propensities? Stanford didn’t consider his own nieces and nephews, which didn’t stir any guilt. But he couldn’t erase the sense of futility when thinking about Eric and Lynne’s daughter. Maybe that was due to how much he cared about her, which he loathed admitting, but could no longer deny. Last night in bed Laurie had made that point when he mentioned speaking to Sam Ahern earlier that day, hoping that he and Renee wouldn’t let this deter them from…. Stanford had cringed, not wishing to hear that much about the Aherns, but then he’d grimaced when Laurie brought up the Snyders, that it was probably for the best that Eric hadn’t planned to attend the November exhibit. Laurie hadn’t continued, for what now was there to say? Perhaps all their scheduled activities were straws in the wind, or at least those on the East Coast. Or maybe the whole world was nearing its end and New York would be the first casualty. But why, Stanford had wanted to say, yet he’d held his tongue. Jane was just a baby, so much for her to learn and experience. So much for all of them to accomplish, but maybe it simply didn’t matter anymore.
Ever a practical man, Stanford had listened to Laurie, then fallen into a dreamless sleep for there was still work to be done. Yet now Stanford couldn’t conjure a single reason to do anything but peer at skyscrapers, which were merely tall blocks of concrete and glass. What was this world about if it was doomed to fall? Stanford took a deep breath, feeling that ugly gloom approach. Usually it only bothered him when he visited his mother, although since her move to the nursing home, the unrest had abated. But now turbulence had found him at work, was threatening to upend his routine. He shook himself, trying to keep it at bay. Words formed in his mind and he flinched, then permitted them. If there is a God, he said to himself, then do something about this. Don’t let this happen if only for…. Stanford cleared his throat, trying to push away the image of Eric and Lynne’s daughter, laughing hysterically in Laurie’s grasp. But that mental picture would not be shaken. Stanford blinked away small tears, then reproached himself. He walked to his office door, opened it, then stepped out, telling his secretary that he was leaving for home. And that if she wanted to as well to please do so.
Emily Harold had never heard her boss sound so forlorn. But right after Mr. Taylor left for the day, so did Miss Harold. They weren’t the only ones quitting early in that vast city.
Friday turned into Saturday, which for many people was only different because that week’s work was done. Newscasters, however, worked overtime, but other than recapping what had already occurred, there was little to report. Yet within the White House and back in Moscow, hardly any sleep was to be had. Back and forth messages were sent, translated, then pondered. Two leaders were fully aware that the fate of the entire world rested upon their heads.
Eric and Lynne spent Saturday as they did most days; they cared for their daughter and each other, then Eric finished the painting he had begun the day before. It was another abstract piece, which he shared with Sam, who stopped by that afternoon, just as Lynne was putting Jane down for a nap. The men spoke about world affairs, which was actually easier than talking about the main issues on their hearts, but Eric didn’t wish to enlighten Sam about all Marek Jagucki had endured as a teenager, nor did Sam want to tell Eric that adoption was off the table. Instead they wondered what tomorrow might bring, then Sam left, noting that he had dinner to cook. Renee was working that day, the first regular shift she’d had all week.
Pastor Jagucki finished his sermon, then spent the afternoon arguing with Mrs. Harmon about the pitiful state of the chrysanthemums, but his banter was light, for no headache accompanied. Then he accepted a late invitation from the Snyders for dessert, in that half a pie remained from yesterday, and Lynne wanted to make another on Sunday. Marek spent an enjoyable evening with Eric, Lynne, and Jane, but was surprised that the Aherns didn’t join them.
Laurie and Stanford ate dinner with Stanford’s father, then went to see The Manchurian Candidate, which had just been released in theaters. Both men found the film riveting, especially against the current political backdrop. They discussed that fact on the way home, then once inside their apartment they made love, which put both right to sleep.
On Sunday morning, Renee woke before her husband. She didn’t have to work that day, or the next few. She wished that wasn’t the case; since Friday all she had wanted was a distraction, which the hospital provided. She didn’t want to spend the day cooped inside with Sam; perhaps later that morning she might call the Snyders, after both families were home from church.
When Sam stirred, he found he was alone, which didn’t surprise him. Renee had taken his news as well as he could have expected, but a frost had been felt during dinner last night and they had gone to bed with few words shared. He put on his robe for the house felt chilly, but that was probably due to the cooler weather which had arrived over the last few days. It was nearly November, winter wasn’t far away. Then he grimaced; perhaps assuming such things was hasty. Maybe nothing would be the same ever again.
Sam used the toilet, then found his wife in the kitchen. Renee also wore her robe and she looked to have been crying. Sam’s guts twisted; he hated seeing her so upset, but his mind was made up. Yes, he had just told her that starting a family was what both needed, but the last week had proved that idea as tenuous as considering that the next season was around the corner. But her sorrow seeped into him, or maybe it was the cold. “Did you turn on the heater?” he asked. Then he realized he hadn’t even said good morning. Sam sighed, then sat beside her, grasping her hand. Her fingers were like ice and Sam trembled. “Renee?”
But what more could he say? He knew she was hurting and that it was his fault. Asking if she was all right would be like rubbing salt in the wound. But how could he explain all that ran through him, that bringing a child into this house would be…. What would it be, Sam wondered.
It would be fraught with difficulty, complications, with…. He swallowed hard, then squeezed his wife’s cold hand. “Renee, I love you. I really do honey. I know it might seem like…”
She gazed right at him, her eyes red blobs in her face. Sam’s heart raced; would she leave him again? If she did, this time he wasn’t sure she’d come back. He had given her his assurance, then he had snatched that dream from her hands, ripping it apart right in front of her face. Her face was streaked with tears, each of those like spilled blood. Sam wanted to be sick, for never in his life had he ever wanted to harm this woman. He’d killed men, and if need be, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so again. But his wife, his beautiful precious wife…. “Oh Renee, my God, please don’t cry, I’m sorry, I’m….”
She nodded, then stroked his face, but her fingers were so frigid that Sam flinched. Then she pulled away her hand, standing from the table. “I forgot about the heater,” she croaked, heading to the thermostat. Sam felt an icy blast in her wake, but instead of going to her, begging for forgiveness, he was frozen in his chair.
She didn’t return, then Sam heard the shower start. He wondered if this was how their life would be, few words and little tenderness between them. Was that how he wanted to live, for however many days remained? Which would be worse, he pondered, as the phone rang.
Sam almost didn’t answer it, but finally he stood, then grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“Sam, it’s Eric. Turn on the television.”
“Just turn it on Sam. We’ll talk about it later.”
The line went dead and Sam stared at the receiver in his hand. Then he wondered the time; why was Eric calling so early? Sam glanced at the clock, it was seven, maybe Jane had roused her parents at the crack of dawn. Sam walked into the living room, turned on the set, then plopped onto the sofa. At this time, he had no idea what was on, and Eric hadn’t mentioned a particular channel. But it was the news, the blasted news, all Sam had watched since Monday. He didn’t want to hear any more hog wash and he nearly stood to turn it off, but the newscaster’s voice caught Sam’s attention. He listened, then stared, then got up to increase the volume. Sam continued gazing at the newscaster, wondering if the man’s words could actually be correct.
When Renee got out of the shower, she toweled off thoroughly in the bathroom. She hadn’t bothered to bring in any clothes, just needing to step under hot water to relieve that brutal chill. She hoped that the rest of the house would be warm, although wherever Sam was, Renee expected a frost to linger. Maybe this was it for them, perhaps the last few weeks were some odd calm before the lasting storm. Maybe she would get a divorce, even if it meant plunging her mother into the hospital or their family on the receiving end of utter scorn from their neighbors and priests. But as the water warmed Renee’s fingers and toes, she finally realized that no longer could she stay married to her husband. She loved Sam, she even comprehended why he now felt as he did. But denying what she wanted hurt too much and she knew deep down he wanted it too. Yet for some reason accepting that was simply too painful for Sam to face. She ached for that lost part of his soul, but could no longer permit it to stain her own.
Just as she wrapped the damp towel around her torso, Sam knocked on the door. “Renee, can I come in?”
She sighed, adjusting the towel. She didn’t want him to see her this way, for no longer did she wish to share herself. They had grown apart and while much of it was her doing, some of it was his. That was what she would tell people; irreconcilable differences were no different for Catholics than for Protestants. They had given it one hell of a go, no one could say they hadn’t. And when asked why, Renee could blame the war, the Korean War, she would note. It was the Korean War’s fault, the Russians’ fault, and….
His voice was plaintive, which further shattered into fragments what remained of her heart. “I’ll be out in a minute.” If he needed to pee, he could certainly wait another few seconds while she….
Instead the door burst open and her husband stepped inside. “Renee, it’s all over, it’s all….”
“Yeah Sam, it is. I can’t live this way, not anymore.” Her voice cracked, but she didn’t look at him, keeping her gaze on the foggy medicine cabinet mirror. “I’m gonna go home Sam, today in fact. I love you, but I just can’t….”
Her husband gently grasped her face, then kissed her lips. Renee fought that kiss for seconds, then acquiesced, trying to not feel anything, but of course, that was impossible. She pulled away, starting to cry. “Damnit Sam, stop this. I can’t, I won’t, I cannot….”
“The Soviets are gonna take the missiles out of Cuba Renee. Khrushchev announced it this morning on Radio Moscow, well, a few hours ago. They’re not gonna keep the missiles there honey.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Renee shouted, removing Sam’s hands from her face. “I can’t do this Sam. Either we’re gonna….” She cleared her throat, for never had she issued an ultimatum to this man, or not a verbal challenge. Slapping him in the hospital was one thing, but this was…. This was it, she decided. “We’re gonna….”
“Today after church I’m gonna talk to Father Riley. He’ll be able to put us in touch with whoever runs the nearest orphanage. Renee, I wanna make you a mother and while there’s lots of red tape, if Kennedy and Khrushchev can solve that crisis, well then….”
“You wanna what?” Renee stared at her husband, was he still her husband? “You’re gonna do what after mass?”
Sam grasped her hand in his, but his touch wasn’t cold or painful. “Eric called me, told me to turn on the television. It’s over Renee, that crisis. And it’s a new beginning for us.”
Then Sam coughed, but Renee wasn’t surprised, for rarely did he speak so thoughtfully. He gripped her hand, then the other, clasping his around hers. “I’d let this come between us.” Then he sighed, kissing her knuckles right afterwards. “Actually, that’s not the truth. Yes, I told you we could adopt, but then I put up a caveat, saying next year. Then the Russians went nuts and I told you no, but that was wrong. Life doesn’t stop no matter what leader thinks they know better or if I, if I….”
Renee nodded, she didn’t need to hear his apology. But to her surprise, Sam continued speaking. “I don’t know what kind of father I’ll make, but I’m tired of being too scared to find out. You’ll be the best mother, my God, and I’ll just try to keep pace.”
Now tears streamed down Sam’s face and Renee had to blink to see through her own. “Are, are you sure?” she mumbled.
“Absolutely. There’s no time to waste. We just don’t know what might happen tomorrow.”
“Oh Sam, oh my goodness, oh honey….” Renee embraced him, but as she did so, the towel loosened around her bust. When it fell to the floor, Renee didn’t try to retrieve it, and neither did Sam. He did loosen his robe, then wiggled out of it. All that impeded them was his briefs and within a minute Renee had tugged them past his knees. The couple had never made love in the bathroom, well, once in the shower, years before. But that morning, October twenty-eighth, required a celebration for many things. To Renee, all that had occurred in the past week was completely forgotten as her husband sealed this pact. They couldn’t make their own child, but in that loving action, parenthood was claimed. Now all they needed was to find the right children, their children, Renee considered, as Sam cried out her name.
As November began, both Lynne and Renee started their periods. For Lynne, it was her first since the summer of 1962, and it came as a relief. Renee felt a similar ease, which for both was also a relatively new notion. They discussed it over coffee shared at the Snyders while Jane napped, Eric painted, and Sam counseled vets at the hospital. As the world inhaled a collective sigh of relief, two women who had previously lamented their cycles now wondered what this new train of thought indicated.
Lynne and Eric were thrilled for the Aherns’ decision, which Renee expounded upon in Lynne’s kitchen; Sam had been put in touch with Catholic orphanage in a large city just ninety minutes north. The couple was hoping to travel there next weekend, once they had received notice from the sister in charge that all their paperwork had been approved. Eric and Lynne had provided a reference for the couple, so had both Fathers Riley and Markham. Even Pastor Jagucki had offered when Eric told him on Monday, for the news was too good to conceal. But it would be the opinions of two Catholic priests that the nuns at St. Joseph’s Home would revere most and once those women were satisfied with the Aherns’ credentials as prospective parents, then Sam and Renee would receive a phone call with a day and time. Really, Renee said, any day would be fine. It just seemed logical that a Saturday would be easiest. The children wouldn’t be in school, although the couple was hoping for a relatively young child, perhaps one just beginning kindergarten. The age of Fran’s son Johnny, Renee wistfully said.
Lynne listened, often dabbing at her eyes, for the joy within her heart was so great. Cramps that came and went didn’t dampen her happiness for Renee; Lynne was very glad not to have conceived, but that had no bearing on what the Aherns were finally going to achieve. Eric had also seemed relieved, only in that all of last week’s drama had affected him too, and it was probably for the best to give their attempts at adding to their family more time. More time to Lynne now meant months; Jane had decided nursing here and there throughout the day didn’t impede her crawling abilities, and a mother was more than happy to nurture her daughter with that intimate bond. Better for another couple to take the plunge, especially one so long suffering. To Lynne, Renee looked older, or maybe they had all aged with last week’s revelations. To Lynne the world seemed different now, a previous innocence replaced by a thin veneer of cynicism. She tried to keep that at bay and when nursing her daughter, that skepticism was absent. But when attending to her usual tasks, Lynne couldn’t fight a wave of doubt. It wasn’t related to Eric, for which she was grateful. For the first time Lynne owned a deep pessimism about the world and bringing more offspring into it seemed irresponsible.
Yet, what the Aherns were hoping to do wasn’t at all reckless; it was wholly necessary and not merely for the child who would benefit from loving, attentive parents. Renee’s bearing was so chipper that Lynne wished for Eric there in the kitchen, sketching what in Lynne’s eyes was an expectant mother. Renee seemed a good six or seven months along, which made Lynne chuckle inwardly. It might take another two or three months to finalize an adoption, or just that long for the couple to find the right son or daughter. While many youngsters resided at St. Joseph’s, the Aherns had specific wishes, which was their right. They wanted a child that had been potty trained, but wasn’t much past the age of five. Gender didn’t seem to matter, although in Renee’s tone, Lynne heard a desire for a daughter. Perhaps Sam wanted a son, Lynne had no idea. They preferred a youngster without any overt handicaps, which was also understandable, for Renee would continue working part time, and Sam wouldn’t be able to care for a disabled child on his own. His time at the VA hospital would also be curtailed, but the couple hadn’t concealed their need for Renee to maintain her role as the breadwinner, no matter how much their painting of the three hawks brought in at the end of the month. Eric had informed Stanford about that late addition to the available canvases and Stanford had been thrilled. But Lynne wasn’t sure how much was for his share of the commission or the reason for that painting’s inclusion.
As Lynne poured more coffee, she observed her friend’s demeanor, which was that of a woman nearing the end of a lengthy ordeal, which Lynne understood fully well. After placing the mugs on the table, Lynne retook her seat, then she gripped Renee’s hand. Renee smiled widely, but tears dotted her cheeks. Then Renee laughed. “It’s been such a long road. And to be honest, sometimes I’m not sure we’re ever gonna get to the end.”
Lynne nodded. “You will, I promise.”
“Yeah, I suppose now there’s no going back. You probably felt that way this time last year.”
Lynne chuckled. “Yes, I did.” As a cramp twisted in Lynne’s middle, a small shiver crawled up her spine. This time last year all she wanted was to have her baby, then another right away. Then Eric flew off, although he quickly returned, which led Lynne to this new life of faith, yet her hesitancy about having another child hadn’t been expected. At this time last year, Lynne was going to church, albeit with the Aherns, assuming Catholicism was her calling. Then she smiled at herself; maybe tomorrow she would wake, ruing her period, eager to put away her diaphragm for a good long while.
As that thought settled, Jane whimpered. Renee was on her feet before Lynne could stand, but a mother felt her baby’s tears as Lynne’s breasts ached and not only from hormones stirred by her cycle. Lynne drank her coffee, then looked at the clock; it was nearly lunchtime. Better to give Jane something solid, then perhaps after lunch, mother and daughter would get comfortable on the sofa. And if Renee was still there, Lynne wouldn’t mind. That part of motherhood wasn’t something Renee would share in, but it was important to Lynne, and to Jane, whose cries had eased. Still Lynne discerned a need from her infant that only she could provide.
Yet, as another cramp make a mother wince, no longer was Lynne’s body solely required for a baby’s nourishment. Lynne stood, took a deep breath, then opened the refrigerator. A small container held a portion of last night’s meatloaf, which would be Jane’s lunch as soon as Lynne mushed it into easily digestible pieces. Renee could fix the women’s sandwiches, but a baby’s meal would come first. Then a more relaxing snack, after all three females had taken their fill.
Eric joined the women just as Renee was leaving. She asked if he wanted a sandwich, but he smiled, telling her he could make his own. Renee chuckled, then gave Lynne a kiss, but Jane was left undisturbed, still at her mother’s bosom. Eric walked Renee to the kitchen door, then returned to his family on the sofa. “Did you have a nice chat?” he asked his wife.
Lynne nodded, then smiled. “They’re hoping to get to the orphanage next weekend if everything checks out.”
Eric grinned, softly stroking his daughter’s head. “Well that would be fantastic. I wonder if they might have a child by Christmas.”
Lynne giggled. “Maybe, but probably more like in the new year, although who knows?” She had a long sigh, which Eric didn’t miss. Then his belly rumbled, making her giggle. “You go get some lunch.”
“That I will do.” He kissed his wife, then stood from the sofa, heading into the kitchen. Within minutes, he returned, two sandwiches on a plate and a glass of milk in his other hand. He sat on the couch, making Jane turn his way. She looked punch-drunk to him, then immediately she returned to Lynne’s breast. In a way, Eric was glad for this small break in their plans; Jane did seem to require this time with her mother. And Lynne was right to make sure their daughter’s needs were met. Yet, Eric didn’t want to put too many months between his offspring. He ate his lunch, watching his daughter snuggle against her mother’s chest. Jane wasn’t actually nursing; now it was more the bond between mommy and child. But it wasn’t only for an infant’s comfort. Lynne looked at peace there with the couple’s baby nestled close. Eric hadn’t missed the building anxiety in his wife’s eyes, as if Renee’s fears had been transferred to Lynne. Yet, Renee’s angst manifested in a different manner within Lynne. Eric wondered how much of it was due to his knowledge about Marek’s past, or last week’s political crisis, or…. Or was it related to what might occur next spring. Besides telling Stanford that the Aherns wanted to sell the painting of the three hawks, Eric had made a verbal agreement for his family to travel to New York in March, right after Jane turned a year old. Eric and Lynne had felt able to discuss it once the gloom of last week had lifted and to Eric’s surprise, Lynne seemed eager to make the arrangements. He didn’t think a possible departure was party to her hesitancy to try for another baby. Something else had changed her mind.
He finished his lunch, then set the empty plate on the coffee table. He drained what remained of his milk, then gazed at his wife, who looked to be in another world. Part of it was fatigue; Jane had been up early, so had Lynne. But an unshakeable bliss rested on a mother’s face, which Eric had captured in a variety of paintings. Then a slight grimace slipped over Lynne’s countenance, which Eric knew was related to her period, for the frown was brief, then replaced by that glow of motherhood. Maybe he was being hasty, for Jane wasn’t even eight months old. He stared at her, eyes half closed, as contented as her mother. Maybe there was no hurry, although Eric wasn’t a young man. Still, Sam and Renee were just getting started, and Fran Canfield hadn’t been a young mother either. But Eric couldn’t help wishing that he and Lynne were on the same page again. Then he chided himself, for look at how long Renee had waited for Sam to get off the pot. Eric smiled, then he felt a brief chill. He’d said that phrase to Sam on that night the men nearly came to fisticuffs. At the time, Eric hadn’t given it a second thought, but now that he did ponder it, that was when Sam’s anger had abated. Yet, that man could be so stubborn, for it had taken another few weeks for Sam to truly get into gear with adopting a child with his wife. Eric hoped that Lynne wouldn’t vacillate for long, maybe she just wanted to make sure Jane’s babyhood was fully explored before they added another. It had taken them so long, there wasn’t any rush.
Eric reached out, stroking his wife’s face. She nodded, her eyes half-closed, but now Jane’s were tightly shut. He smiled. “Shall I take her upstairs?”
Lynne nodded. “She might need another nap, she was up so early.”
“I might need a long rest too,” Eric said, scooping his daughter from her mother’s arms.
“I think a quiet afternoon would be good for all of us,” Lynne replied.
Eric smiled as his daughter stirred, then settled back into slumber. He carried her upstairs, placing her in the crib. As he closed her door, Lynne waited on the landing. “I’ve locked the house,” she said. “Let’s go lay down.”
She squeezed his hand, then led him into their bedroom. She might have started her period, but parents required their privacy. There might not be any babies for a while, Eric allowed, but all good things in their own time.
By the time Lynne was over her cycle, all the paintings destined for New York were on their way east. The house seemed a little bereft to Lynne with the orchard scene gone and Eric missed the canvas of Marek and Jane. Yet, the artist had started another of the pastor and his charge, although Eric wasn’t sure what he would call this painting. In this new piece, Marek was looking at Jane, not at Eric. Jane wasn’t looking at her father either, but was babbling to her pastor. In Polish, Eric noted to his wife, which make Lynne laugh. But Eric wasn’t being facetious; he discerned a distinct change in Jane’s gurgles when she replied to Marek. Eric didn’t chalk that up to anything she might have inherited from him, simply how magnificent was the mind of an infant introduced to more than one language.
Eric had sketched that scene while the paintings were being packed up and now he painted at his leisure, his thoughts not overly troubled by the missing canvases, although he did wish to have taken one more look at Marek’s eyes. He wasn’t sure why, for he knew everything that man had endured, although Marek had been only a teen at the time. Eric didn’t spend time pondering how he now realized those details; it would be like trying to ascertain why he had spent most of his life turning into a hawk. Some things were without a proper answer and had to be taken at face value. But Eric did wonder, as he laid paint onto canvas, why Marek had chosen not to look the artist in the eye. Maybe he had wanted to spare Eric from delving too deeply into that moment in time. Maybe he hadn’t wanted anyone else aware. Or maybe…. Sometimes Eric now found his pastor, who was also becoming Eric’s friend, staring at his eyes. Marek had remarked about them, but not as those who questioned just how extraordinary was the artist’s vision. Marek meant their shape, which according to Lynne, Sam, even Renee, was how they were before. As Eric painted, he considered Marek’s query, then suddenly he was mesmerized in depicting his daughter. Time lost all meaning when Eric painted Jane.
The next thing Eric knew was that baby’s heady laughter and her mother’s tapping foot. “Eric, where are you?” Lynne’s tone was light, her smile teasing. Jane had picked up on her mother’s jovial mood, giggling in Lynne’s arms. Mother and daughter were dressed for the gray, cool day, but Eric had grown warm, as sometimes happened. Now he felt the air’s chill, his sweater discarded on a nearby stool. He shivered, then moved from the easel, going to where another vision waited. He hadn’t painted his wife and daughter together since the missile crisis, and now he knew his next project. “Is it lunch or dinnertime,” he joked, aware it was probably a few minutes past the noon meal.
“It’s already tomorrow,” Lynne smiled. “I’ve been calling you for….”
“Ages, I’m sure.” He kissed her, then placed little pecks on Jane’s cheeks. “All right, just let me clean up in here.”
Lynne nodded, then walked to the front of the painting. She gasped, which made Eric turn her way. “Honey, what?”
“It’s, she’s, oh Eric….” Lynne blinked away tears as Jane clapped in delight.
Eric came to their sides, putting his arm around his wife. “It just, I mean, it was something I couldn’t stop. Do you think it’s too, well….”
Lynne stared at him. Then she sighed. “Why is it the best men aren’t fathers already?” Lynne glanced back to the painting, then she faced her husband, stroking his cheek. “I know it took us a long time, but Pastor and Sam and….”
Eric nodded, thinking of at least one other name she could have added, but Laurie would always be an uncle. Stanford would too, which made Eric smile. “He’s not that old you know. Marek and Sam are the same age.”
“I know, it’s just that….” She sighed again, switching Jane to her other hip. “Maybe he feels his parish is his family. But I was there Eric, I watched you sketch this, and I watched him. He loves our daughter, he’d be so good with his own.” As Lynne inhaled deeply, Eric felt a shift in her mood. She had used her diaphragm since ending her period and Eric hadn’t argued. Renee had called yesterday with news that they were going to St. Joseph’s next Friday to meet with the head nun. It was a preliminary step and while the Aherns wouldn’t have a child by Thanksgiving, perhaps by Christmas. That year, Sam and Renee were spending Thanksgiving with Sam’s family, mostly due to Fran and Louie. Sam had invited Eric and Lynne to join them, but Eric had already mentioned sharing that meal with Marek. It would be a small party for Jane’s first Thanksgiving, but perhaps there was a reason for that. If nothing else, Eric would have finished this canvas by then, a painting he wanted to Marek to keep, if Marek agreed.
Lynne leaned against her husband and Eric kissed the side of her face. He wanted to stroke her cheek, but his fingers were dappled in various hues. “Listen, take Jane inside, it’s not warm out here. I’ll be in as soon as I can. If she’s hungry, go ahead and feed her.”
Lynne nodded, but didn’t move from her husband. Eric smiled, wondering if it was only the two of them whether or not Lynne would have stripped her clothing, then lain on the sofa. But those days were now past due to the giggling baby and cool temperatures. As Lynne finally stepped away, Eric felt a rising pleasure. She kept glancing back to the easel, then at him, her eyes needy. Maybe her apprehension about having another child had only been temporary. Eric would bet the worth of the Aherns’ three hawks that at bedtime, Lynne’s diaphragm would be tucked away in a bathroom drawer.
Eric would have made a mint had he been able to place that bet, for Lynne had decided that birth control was no longer necessary. The couple spent all their free time in bed, but compared to the past, those hours were now shoehorned into precious minutes while Jane napped. If Eric wasn’t making love to his wife, he was on the phone with Stanford, who had confirmed the safe arrival of all the paintings. The show would open on Saturday the twenty-fourth, and while the gallery would be closed on Thanksgiving Day, Stanford expected a record numbers of visitors during the rest of that holiday weekend. Not everyone spent their time shopping for presents, Stanford had clucked, and besides, he added, if a patron didn’t appear on the first night, there wouldn’t be any canvases to be had afterwards.
Eric didn’t wonder about that much, although he had asked Stanford about Seth. Stanford had sighed, then noted that according to Laurie, Seth was still being furtive. Yet, the Gordon and Abrams families were thrilled with his improved demeanor. Stanford and Laurie were having Thanksgiving with Laurie’s relatives that year, although Stanford wished Lynne could send a pie. Laurie did too, Stanford added, making Eric chuckle. But Eric’s mood was dampened by Stanford’s words about Seth. He kept those to himself, not wanting to worry his wife, or the Aherns.
All Sam wanted to know was if Stanford had any idea how much the three hawks might earn. Eric teased Sam that hawks were long out of fashion, but Eric knew the worth of that painting. Stanford hadn’t been shy about some offers he’d already received, more than Eric had initially considered. It was in part due to the hawks themselves, but also that it was a rare opportunity for collectors to gain an early and previously unsold Snyder canvas. If Sam had chosen to sell the landscape, the price wouldn’t have been as steep, Stanford had informed Eric, not that it would have been a pittance, but hawks commanded a high value. Only the blue barn could have earned more, although Stanford’s tone had altered when noting that detail. Eric would swear that his dealer was happy that the Aherns were keeping it. Eric’s cynical side told him it was that Stanford wanted that piece to increase in price. But Eric knew Stanford well enough that not everything with that man was about the bottom line, or not anymore, which made Eric chuckle as he put the finishing touches on the portrait of Marek and Jane. Jane Renee had changed her Uncle Stanford, but so had his mother’s deteriorating health. Stanford noted that even his father was accompanying Stanford and Laurie to the Abrams for Thanksgiving. Constance had worsened significantly over the last two months and better for Michael to be distracted by Laurie’s clan.
The day before the show was to open, Eric placed his latest piece in the sunroom. A cold front was moving in and he didn’t want that painting in the studio. A baby gate now kept the sunroom free from Jane’s sometimes boisterous presence and she sat at the gate crying. Eric stepped over it, then hoisted her into the air, making her giggle, although her chubby cheeks were dotted with fresh tears. He kissed those away, making her laugh as he then planted raspberries into the folds of her neck. She was a healthy baby, for which he was thankful. Sam and Renee hadn’t met with any children last week, but had been given approval by the sisters at St. Joseph’s, as well as receiving dossiers on several orphans. Sam had told Eric that they wanted to take their time, not wishing to meet with any youngsters unless they felt very certain. No use raising anyone’s hopes prematurely, Sam had said, including themselves. Yet, Eric had heard a newfound joy in Sam’s voice, a man finally ready to embrace fatherhood.
It wouldn’t be parenthood as Eric knew it, but the experience was different for each man, and woman. Then Eric cuddled Jane, noting how she immediately nestled against him. She had a warm relationship with her godfather and her many uncles, but only with her daddy would she snuggle this closely. Eric had never seen her react this way with Sam, Laurie, Stanford, or even Marek. With Marek, Jane was animated, but not tactile.
She remained snug against her father’s chest, which made Eric rejoice, and ache, for she wouldn’t always need him this way. One day she would be running about like Helene and before Eric knew it, she would be like Sally, a teenager pulling away from her parents. Eric stepped back over the gate, which caught Jane’s attention. This room had only recently become off limits and she gazed about, returned to her former stomping grounds. She wiggled in her father’s arms, making Eric laugh, but his grip was secure, and soon she realized this was only a momentary visit.
Then she sagged against Eric’s chest, making him heave a blissful sigh. They stood in front of the portrait, but Jane didn’t bother taking note of it, as if she knew it was of her. And of a man who she loved and who equally cared about her. Eric had depicted that attachment, but it wasn’t the same as how Sam loved Jane, or even the New Yorkers. Then Eric chuckled; one day he would manage to capture those men on canvas, and when he did, Stanford might issue an edict that no one but family could see it. When Eric painted that couple, with or without Jane’s presence, their affections would be front and center.
With Marek, however, it wasn’t love shared, or not yet. Eric wondered how a man of God meted out his attentions to those for whom he acted as a shepherd. Marek was in charge of a small flock, although since the end of October the pews at St. Matthew’s had been full. Eric wondered how long that would last, perhaps through the holidays, then as 1963 rolled around, those who had sought immediate comfort might fall away. Did that bother Marek; did pastors and priests take offense when numbers declined?
Maybe not, for there was nothing they could do about it. But for those closer, how did a pastor maintain cordial relations without overstepping boundaries? Marek had probably received other invitations for Thanksgiving, probably some prior to the one Eric and Lynne had offered. What had made Marek say yes to the Snyders and no to others? Eric might like to think Jane had something to do with it. But if Eric wanted to be honest, perhaps it was more about a bond now established between himself and that pastor, one borne of an ability to see what most could not.
What did Eric witness in this new painting? His daughter was bigger, her hair longer. She wore autumnal attire, but otherwise she looked about the same as in that summer portrait. On first glance Marek looked no differently; this time their faces were in profile, one could make that distinction. But could Eric have painted his pastor, and friend, as before, where that man’s eyes were for all to examine? Eric had chosen a safer route in facing his subjects together so neither’s thoughts could be discerned. Or maybe it was only the painter’s protection Eric had considered.
Eric kissed the top of Jane’s head. She pulled away, smiling broadly at him. Then she laughed, looking to where her mother stood at the baby gate. Lynne’s grin made her husband shiver, for her saucy smile denoted more than joy. Lynne’s skirt precluded her from stepping over the gate, so Eric walked that way as Jane stretched out her arms in Lynne’s direction.
Jane went from one parent to another, nestling just as closely against her mother as how she had rested near her father. But Eric knew there was a difference in her motions, for she began rooting against Lynne’s chest. Now Lynne sighed, but it was tempered with a sense of purpose, and the couple would have to work around Jane’s needs. Eric joined his family in the living room as Lynne sat on the sofa, placing the baby exactly where Jane wished to be. Yet Jane didn’t want any more than the bond shared between mother and infant. And within a few minutes, Jane’s eyes were closed.
Eric was torn between wanted to sit near the women he loved and sketching this scene, which wouldn’t last forever. He opted to remain beside his wife and daughter, gazing into Lynne’s wide eyes, a few tears falling along her cheeks. He brushed them aside before they landed on the baby. He fully understood her mood, which wasn’t at all displeased, although he made out one small niggle. For the first time it wasn’t connected to the Aherns, which was good. Instead it was for a single man who cared for many without anyone pointedly looking after him. Eric prayed for his pastor, then closed his own eyes as Lynne leaned his way, Jane between them. Eric felt Lynne’s missives being offered in a similar vein. They remained seated on the sofa for several minutes, hands clasped together, until Jane stirred from her brief slumber. Then Eric rose, adding wood to the fire. He returned with his sketchpad and began drawing what would be yet another in an endless series of family portraits, wondering as he did if this sort of life was waiting for Marek Jagucki.
I started this novel in October 2013; at the time, I assumed I’d be penning another short story, the form I had been working in for much of that year. However, over two-thirds completed, The Hawk currently stands at 444,000 words. Never before have I embarked upon such a large project.
Over the last two years, other than poems for NaPoWriMo, I have written nothing else. Quilting has overtaken much of my free time, as has caring for my family; recently I have become a grandmother of two. I have also nursed my father through the end of his life, which fell upon the heels of my first grandchild’s arrival. Now with time to write and revise, I have chosen to share this behemoth in a beta-type manner. Part Five will most likely be released in early 2016, but please bear with this author while grandchildren, fabrics, and a new familial normal take precedence. In the meantime, thank you for joining me on this journey, which is a search for my Father, as well as Eric’s. As this is a novel in progress, comments concerning this tale are welcome and can be sent to annascottgraham at gmail dot com.
Anna Scott Graham was born in 1966 in Northern California. A mother and grandmother, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, some hummingbirds, and numerous quilts.
Other books by [+ Anna Scott Graham+] are available on Shakespir.
Painter Eric Snyder harbors a secret known only to his wife, Lynne. When Eric’s latest disappearance raises the suspicions of best friends Sam and Renee Ahern, Lynne can no longer keep the truth under wraps. While the Aherns ponder this phenomenon, Eric embarks upon a search for his father, once again taking him far from the woman he loves. In part two of the series, set in 1961, as the Snyders adjust to change, Sam Ahern relives some of his Korean War experiences. Sam’s wife Renee is alarmed by his candor, while Laurie Abrams reveals that his cousin Seth also served in Korea, but returned an altered man. Meanwhile Lynne Snyder undergoes a transformation and Stanford hosts an exhibit of Eric’s work that catapults the artist into sudden fame. In the third part of the series, set in 1962, the culmination of the Snyders’ dreams becomes reality, yet the truth about Laurie and Stanford makes Sam wary. Pastor Marek Jagucki is introduced, providing peace to Eric, but slight worry for Lynne. However it’s Renee to fret most, when Sam’s sister Frannie makes a dramatic announcement. Set in 1962, this fourth part of the series focuses on the fallout of Fran Canfield’s pregnancy, which deeply affects both the Snyders and Aherns. Eric organizes a local exhibit, learning more about Marek Jagucki, but the truth of Marek’s past is revealed to the painter in one of his own canvases. As Marek begins to question the oddness of Eric’s eyes, the entire world is thrown into possible nuclear conflict by the Cuban Missile Crisis, which further dents Renee’s dreams.