Copyright 2016 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.
On the third morning of Stanford’s vacation, he woke alone. The previous two days he and Laurie had stirred together, their slumber interrupted by a baby’s cries. Yet now Stanford found himself as the sole occupant of their bed, no tears apparent. Stanford lay still, placing his hand where Laurie usually resided. The sheets were cool; for how long had Laurie been awake?
Several minutes later, Stanford found his partner, and their guests, in the kitchen. Agatha’s usual morning hum was replaced by actual song, but nothing that Stanford recognized other than how melodious was her voice. No one seemed to notice Stanford’s arrival as Eric stood near Agatha, a plate in his hand, waiting for breakfast. Lynne and Laurie’s attentions were focused upon Jane, who sat at the table in a high chair donated by Stanford’s youngest sister. The baby was being fed by her uncle, a term Stanford couldn’t ignore, not from how often Laurie, Eric, and Lynne had used it, nor from how much of Laurie’s love spilled onto a little girl who seemed nothing like the helpless baby Stanford had recalled. Jane Snyder might still be an infant, but she was also now a member of a family Stanford had never imagined making.
For the last two days, Stanford had attempted to deny the changes within his household; the Snyders were merely guests, albeit very close to him and to Laurie. And to Agatha; how much of this altered dynamic was her doing, Stanford wondered, still silently observing all those within the kitchen. It wasn’t a large room; rare were the times this many people had ever been in it at once. Yet it felt to Stanford as warm and welcoming as the Snyders’ kitchen, it felt like…. Stanford shivered; of course it was his home, he’d lived in this apartment for ages. But as the domicile of two men, never before had the sense of family permeated these walls, and not only that of Agatha’s domain. The whole place seemed to resonate with newfound emotions, even the library, where the adults had taken their after drinks last night. Eric had insisted, wanting to again admire Seth’s sculptures. At first Stanford had been hesitant, but later he wanted to thank Eric for making that overture. Seth wasn’t anywhere close, yet he was all around them. Best to get him out of the way now so the rest of the month wouldn’t be clouded.
Jane’s laughter took Stanford from those thoughts; she gazed his way, her blue eyes sparkling. Stanford smiled, he couldn’t help it. Yet, part of his mirth was in how only Jane realized his presence. She quieted, but still grinned as if aware; for how long could they keep this secret? Suddenly Stanford trembled; she wasn’t some mindless baby. She knew who he was; her uncle, her father’s art dealer, her Uncle Laurie’s best friend. And his companion, but to Jane that meant the same as what her mother and father were to each other. In that respect, Jane Snyder saw Stanford and Laurie no differently than how she understood her parents’ relationship or Sam and Renee’s. And for the first time, Stanford allowed how novel was that insight. Not even his nieces and nephews, nor Laurie’s, were afforded such a liberated viewpoint. Stanford got on well with his brothers-in-law and with Laurie’s relatives by marriage. But all them held reservations, of varying degrees, concerning Stanford and Laurie’s connection. Never had Stanford felt any such judgment from Eric or Lynne. And of course none from their daughter.
Now Jane stared at her uncle, her Uncle Stanford. Those blue eyes, the same hue as Sam Ahern’s, held none of that man’s initial disgust, or his later apologies. Jane’s eyes reminded Stanford a little of Seth, when that man had been much younger, but then Seth had never been so free. He’d always been, as Laurie’s mother like to say, a little touched. But Jane was perfectly content, even here in Stanford’s kitchen. Or more rightly in Auntie Agatha’s kitchen, where finally Stanford’s presence was detected by the only woman Stanford loved. Agatha turned, nodding at him like she had known he was there all along.
Since his mother’s death, Stanford had permitted a more slightly open nature around Agatha, which he now accepted was in part due to their stilted conversation at the end of last year. But that wasn’t the only reason for his altered feelings; Stanford genuinely cared about his cook, housekeeper, and only confidant other than Laurie, even if Stanford hadn’t confessed to Agatha that December evening. She knew he was seeing Dr. Walsh, although she never peppered him with questions. Agatha was a constant, what Stanford permitted, as she deftly returned to flipping pancakes, not revealing Stanford’s presence to Eric, who remained by her side.
Stanford wanted to chuckle, but he ached to remain unseen for another moment, to observe the only other woman for whom he took an interest. To his chagrin, he had found himself caring about Lynne as soon as she’d stepped from the taxi onto Manhattan pavement. Laurie had insisted both men wait for their guests in the downstairs lobby, which had vexed Stanford for how plebian they must have appeared, loitering as if they had nothing better to do. But that had been the truth, for when the cab pulled up, Eric exiting the vehicle first, both Stanford and Laurie were quick to leave the building. Stanford had shaken Eric’s hand as Laurie helped Lynne and Jane from the taxi, and upon seeing Lynne toting her child, Stanford’s heart lurched in his chest. He’d been so pleased to see Eric, but Lynne aroused a different set of emotions. Perhaps they were related to Jane had been Stanford’s immediate thought. But how he felt about Lynne Snyder had little to do with her child. Stanford had left Eric to embrace the painter’s wife, which hadn’t been difficult, as Laurie had taken Jane from her mother as soon as both females were out of the cab.
Lynne hadn’t initiated the hug; it had been all Stanford’s doing, an action involuntary yet so necessary. While he loved Agatha, there was no reason to embrace her, yet Stanford needed to share some sort of physical affection, other than what he gave to Laurie. He’d always hugged his mother, until she forgot who he was. For years that action had been absent, yet how easily had it been reintegrated, as if Stanford was as comfortable as Laurie in sharing his feelings. Lynne hadn’t held onto him for long, yet her arms had been soothing, her greeting appropriate for the occasion, how good it was to see him, and to be there. She hadn’t said home, New York wasn’t her residence, yet, for the next few weeks, this apartment was the Snyder base. They were staying with Agatha for a week, maybe even with Stanford’s father for a few days. But until the end of April, this Manhattan edifice was where Eric, Lynne, and Jane would reside. They would live here until they flew west again.
Now Stanford felt as comfortable around Lynne as he did Agatha; he didn’t analyze that emotional state, other than allowing that since his mother’s death, perhaps he required some sort of feminine touch. Laurie’s mother was too overbearing for Stanford, but Agatha and Lynne knew how to negotiate the waters. Inwardly Stanford chided himself, for that sounded as if he needed to be treated with kid gloves. But in how Jane began to giggle, perhaps that wasn’t an incorrect assessment. Stanford shrugged at the little girl and by that action, Laurie turned Stanford’s direction. “Well, about time,” Laurie smiled. “I was wondering if you’d gone into a coma.”
Now Stanford rolled his eyes, for all eyes were upon him. “Hardly. Just wanted to enjoy my holiday.” He stepped toward Jane, who laughed loudly. How insightful could a one-year-old be, Stanford mused, but then her father was one of the most discerning men Stanford had ever known. Stanford caught Eric’s gaze, like that man could read Stanford’s mind. Yet, Stanford had nothing to hide from his client. Here they were, standing in Stanford’s kitchen, all mysteries stripped away.
“Here, take my seat.” Lynne stood, her smile as unfettered as her child’s. “If I have another pancake, I’ll bust. In fact, it’s probably time for a little girl to be changed.”
As Lynne began to unhook the high chair’s tray, Stanford stepped forward. “Oh, it’s all right. Don’t rush off on account of me.”
He said the words without thinking; the last thing he wanted was for Jane to be taken away. Yet the room became hushed, except for Jane’s giggles. The rest were silenced and it took Stanford a few seconds to realize why. Then he felt utterly foolish, also nearly naked. Never had he permitted this level of familiarity with anyone other than Laurie and his father. And with Agatha of course, but even with that woman, he was still her employer. Yet the Snyders were friends; they were family, Stanford allowed. Somehow Eric, Lynne, and Jane had wormed their way into a place where so few dwelled that Stanford was surprised they had found room. Or maybe the bigger shock was how easily they had snuck inside him, as if all that time the space existed, but he had blocked the entry.
“Actually, Lynne’s been waiting to shower, but Jane’s been reluctant to relinquish her mother. I’ll change the girl here, then we’ll be right back while Mommy has a minute to herself.” Eric’s intervention was seamless, Stanford thought, as that man unstrapped the still jovial baby from the high chair, then hoisted her into the air, stirring rapturous laughter.
Lynne’s smile was kind, as was the way she gently patted Stanford’s shoulder. The Snyders departed from the kitchen together, leaving Stanford with those with whom he typically resided within this house. Yet now the usual felt odd; how much had that other threesome assimilated themselves into Stanford’s realm? And, he shuddered, how much would he miss them when they eventually left New York?
How strange would this apartment seem while they stayed with Agatha, he wondered, suddenly hoping that his father would insist upon hosting the Snyders for at least a week. Stanford could easily visit them within minutes if they were a few blocks away, but once the Snyders headed to Queens…. He wouldn’t see them until they returned to Manhattan and by then only a few days would remain. The week they were at Agatha’s, Stanford and Laurie would be fending for themselves. Stanford would be back to work by then, and for the remainder of the Snyders’ visit. He only had these two weeks off and already three days had slipped past far too quickly for Stanford’s liking. How was this even possible, he considered, as Agatha brought him coffee and a plate of pancakes just how he liked them, with a little butter, a smidgen of syrup, and a dollop of jam.
This was the sort of breakfast he only ate a few times a year, yet yesterday she had made oatmeal, who knew what tomorrow’s fare would be? It wasn’t his typical toast, but the coffee was as delicious as always. She’d probably had to make a full pot, but it made no difference to her excellent morning brew. Was Stanford the only one finding how strange all of this was?
He wanted to ask Laurie, but refrained, for that would have been too much to speak of in Agatha’s presence. And even if Stanford mentioned it to his partner, would Laurie understand the depth of Stanford’s query? Maybe this was something for Stanford to discuss with Dr. Walsh, whom he was supposed to see that afternoon. But not even with his psychiatrist did Stanford want to share these revelations. They were too new, he decided. Maybe they were merely the effects of having three Snyders staying at his home. Or maybe he was….
Maybe he was getting soft. Perhaps his mother’s death had affected him, but he couldn’t gauge exactly how until those ways had been discovered. He allowed that his mother’s passing had altered him somewhat; he wasn’t as morose as before. But he had never imagined feeling so, so…. Vulnerable, but not in a negative manner. Stanford looked forward to Eric returning with Jane, for within the last couple of days, Stanford had grown fond of spending time with the painter alongside his family. No longer could Stanford consider Eric a sole entity. Now all three Snyders mattered.
Stanford ate his breakfast, pondering how that detail would now figure within his life. His mother was dead, so it was acceptable that someone else, or two someones, could move into that position. That both were female seemed even more appropriate, then Stanford wore a small frown. If Lynne and Jane took the spot reserved for Stanford’s late mother, where did Eric fit in? Stanford glanced at Laurie, who looked a little bereft, also unkempt; what time had that man woke? Instead of mulling over Eric’s position within Stanford’s life, the dealer studied his partner. Dark circles hung under Laurie’s eyes, yet those eyes carried none of the sorrow that had haunted Stanford’s lover for the past several months. Ordinary fatigue dogged Laurie’s countenance. Then he smiled, reaching for Stanford’s hand. Stanford looked to where Agatha stood at the stove, her back to the men. Stanford then gripped Laurie’s hand, and if Eric happened to walk in at that moment, Stanford didn’t care. To see Laurie looking so happy, if not somewhat weary, was worth any personal embarrassment Stanford might endure.
But Eric didn’t return for several minutes, and when he did, he regaled those in the kitchen with a tale that did make Stanford squirm; Jane had her morning constitutional, and it was easier to put her in the tub with her mother for a few moments. Jane’s hair was damp, but she smelled fresh, which made Laurie laugh, Agatha chuckle, and once the idea of a poopy baby passed through Stanford’s head, he grinned slightly, then offered to hold Jane. She was, as her father said, done with the messier aspects of infancy, at least for a time.
“Indeed, you take her,” Eric said, handing his daughter to Stanford. “I think she was asking for one of her uncles, and seeing you haven’t had your turn yet….” Eric’s tone was jovial as he placed Jane in Stanford’s lap. She giggled, then gazed at Stanford. He’d held her a few times over the last few days, but she was certainly more familiar with Laurie and Agatha. But she remained placid, although Laurie moved Stanford’s unfinished breakfast beyond her reach. Then Laurie caught Stanford’s gaze; now no exhaustion edged that man’s twinkling green eyes. They were full of…. Stanford blinked, but couldn’t escape the deep love Laurie felt for Jane, and for the man holding her. Yet it wasn’t that Laurie wished they’d had children together. It was simply the thrill of sharing in the joy that Stanford could no longer deny. Never again would he be able to repudiate the affection which he possessed for these people, for to do so would be refuting a part of himself. Strangely, these feelings didn’t translate into a yearning to reach out toward his sisters and their families. As Jane babbled in Stanford’s grasp, he was content to admire only her. Perhaps one day his regards would include others. For now, it was enough of an alteration to bounce Eric’s daughter upon his rather unpracticed knee.
Stanford didn’t speak to his father, Dr. Walsh, Laurie, or anyone else about his newfound realizations. He did curb those enthusiasms around Laurie’s family when he, Laurie and the Snyders traveled to Brooklyn. They visited Laurie’s clan at Rose’s home, and she had baked a coconut cake especially for this introduction. Neither Stanford nor Laurie remarked upon the cake and Eric, Lynne, and Jane had no idea of the slight friction Rose felt when Wilma casually inferred that if they had time, she would love to host them for an afternoon. But later that evening, Laurie and Stanford joked about it, for of course Wilma would make her chocolate cake, prompting the unspoken query as to which sister was the better baker. Yet Stanford made Laurie laugh out loud that neither woman’s desserts could top one of Lynne’s pies.
Lynne had already baked a peach pie, which Agatha thought was the best she had ever eaten. She asked if Lynne would make another in Queens, wanting to see if her sister Belle felt as Agatha did, that the crust was the same as their mother’s. Neither of those sisters had ever been able to replicate the delicate flakiness of their mother’s creations, a lost recipe that Agatha occasionally lamented. Lynne quickly acquiesced to Agatha’s request, offering to Agatha her own recipe. Agatha was pleased for Lynne’s generosity, but claimed that pies weren’t her specialty. Her sister Belle, however, would be exceedingly grateful for the guidelines.
At the end of the first week, Eric felt to have put on ten pounds between one Brooklyn baker and his wife’s Manhattan efforts. Eric also thought a change had occurred between his family and the New Yorkers, or more rightly between his wife, daughter, and Stanford, although Laurie looked years younger, or maybe just as he used to appear. Seth hadn’t been mentioned by anyone, yet Eric had studied that man’s handiwork many times, either popping into the library alone or the nightly sojourn in that room where nightcaps were shared. Those moments were more like after Jane was put to sleep beverages, for how late in the evening, or relatively late for the Snyders, those drinks were partaken, and that for Lynne no alcohol was imbibed. Eric knew the real reason, but permitted aloud what Stanford and Laurie had learned after the first night, to only offer Lynne 7-Up. The men assumed Lynne didn’t drink, or that she didn’t drink night after night. In truth, Lynne had given up stronger spirits months ago when the couple had decided to try for another baby.
Not that Eric and his wife were teetotalers; both appreciated good wine. Yet, while Eric enjoyed a nightcap with their hosts, Lynne sipped soda, often snuggled closely against her husband on the library’s leather sofa. Sometimes she fell asleep next to Eric, but the men continued their discourse, simply lowering their voices. Both Snyders found these conversations a lovely way to end the evenings, in part that there was plenty of fodder for animated discourse. And that it had been ages since the Snyders had chatted with another twosome.
When the Snyders shared a meal with their pastor, all three were actively engaged in the discussion. But Eric had missed the back and forth exchanges always present when he, Lynne, Sam, and Renee got together, or how the men would banter while the women shared their own interests, yet those separate threads always ended up woven into a cozy quartet of dialogue. The same sort of intersection, diversion, then reattachment occurred within Stanford and Laurie’s library night after night. Eric felt a distinct harmony had been rediscovered and he reveled in that manner of friendship, inwardly praying that once his family returned home, it could be rekindled with the Aherns. Eric had received a letter from Sam that all was well at the house. Sam didn’t mention his wife, nor did he write about his impending portrait. That subject hadn’t come up with the New Yorkers, although last night, when gazing at Seth’s figurines, Eric caught Stanford staring at him. Stanford’s mood was hard to gauge, but Eric would bet money that his dealer wasn’t solely considering the absent sculptor.
Stanford had spoken about the European tour; currently Eric’s canvases were in West Germany, moving next to Holland. They would travel onto Scandinavia, then head south to Switzerland, then to Italy. Portugal and Spain would round out the stops and sometime in autumn the collection would return to America, where paintings would be delivered to their owners or taken back to Eric’s storage building. Well, the orchard would return to the Snyders’ living room, the blue barn to the Aherns’ house, while The Pastor and His Charge would head to St. Matthew’s. Eric had considered hanging the picture of Lynne on the stool, but every time he mentioned it, Lynne blushed, asking just where Eric thought would be appropriate. Eric had noted a few empty spaces along their walls, making his wife turn an even deeper shade of crimson. Ultimately that prized canvas would reside with the rest of Eric’s most beloved pieces, in a darkened, climate controlled edifice. Yet something about that seemed erroneous to the painter, as he again gazed at two figurines which hearkened to a tremendous artistic gift. At least these statues weren’t completely hidden from view.
Should they be in a museum, Eric wondered, half-listening to what Lynne and Stanford were sharing. Eric should pay more attention to that conversation, for it was shocking in that Stanford rarely said more to his client’s wife other than offering praise for her culinary feats. Yet, this stream of chit-chat had nothing to do with pie. Stanford spoke about the collection’s move to Italy, after a brief visit to Geneva. Lynne remarked at how sad it was that so many Iron Curtain countries weren’t permitted to display Eric’s work.
“Well, it wasn’t like I didn’t ask,” Stanford said glumly. Then he huffed. “The Soviets acted like showing a western painter was beneath them. I wonder what they think now,” he chuckled, finishing his drink. “Every review has been better than the last and those in London were superlative from the start.”
Eric merely smiled; his work had received critical acclaim, from hawks to portraits, nature scenes and those more impressionistically inclined. Several foreign critics had correctly deduced the series of Lynne disguised as a variety of natural settings, but the actual nudes had received the most acclaim. Oddly enough, the nudes were never identified as the painter’s wife, as if that detail was irrelevant. Maybe to Europeans it was. Critics made no mention as to that woman’s identity, only that her beauty was irrevocably captured, and what a blessing that was. Eric hadn’t labored over the reviews, but he appreciated certain points made. Those focusing on Lynne had struck the deepest chord within the artist.
Now Laurie added his views, in how many Italian galleries wanted to display Eric’s genius. Only a few had originally been slated to show the collection, but an onslaught of museums had badgered Stanford, which at first had angered the dealer, yet additional stops had been added to the tour, and perhaps a few more might be squeezed in, although no Eastern European nations would manage to find their way onto the slate. Not that Stanford would be adverse if any requested the paintings. Only that since the Cuban Missile Crisis, an even stronger wall now stood between East and West. Stanford clucked that Eric’s art would be shown in China before the Soviets permitted an Iron Bloc country permission.
Eric wasn’t bothered, well, he would love for The Pastor and His Charge to be seen in Warsaw. Otherwise, he couldn’t worry about who saw his work. Then Eric wondered if Seth ever felt that way; his few pieces rested in private collections, none had ever been displayed publically. A small statue of his mother and aunt stood in a curio cabinet at Rose’s house, then Eric grew curious; did Wilma display any of her son’s pieces?
He would find out next week, as it seemed another visit to Brooklyn was in the works. Someone had said something about a chocolate cake, if Eric recalled correctly. His biggest impression of the trip to Rose’s home was how tightly-knit were the Abrams women, very similar to the Ahern and Nolan clans. If he had mentioned that detail, would the reaction have been disbelief, or would those Jewish ladies have gladly accepted that religion had no bearing on how closely families were linked together. The only distinction at the Abrams’ home was that it was mostly a domain of females, Rose’s daughters and their daughters alongside Rose’s sister in attendance. Eric expected it to be the same when they stopped in at the Gordons, another bevy of female relations with only Laurie representing the male line.
Eric stared at that man, who laughed at whatever Stanford had just said. Lynne giggled, but Laurie didn’t hold back, looking as young as Eric had ever seen him. Stanford appeared slightly peeved, which made Eric smile, although he wasn’t in on the joke. He might ask Lynne later, if he remembered, but he probably wouldn’t. Every night the couple fell asleep wrapped tightly to the other, having made a delightful sort of love. It was different in New York, both had admitted, perhaps only that they were on vacation, or that their affections, while passionate, were more muted than usual, but not for their daughter’s benefit. Yet silent lovemaking seemed even more fervent, as if all of their affections were translated by touch. Eric only enjoyed one alcoholic drink per evening, then he sipped soda alongside his wife. He wanted to be fully engaged when they went to bed, for there was much to celebrate.
They were finally meeting Laurie’s relatives, there was the wonderful camaraderie with Agatha. Two nights Michael Taylor had joined them for dinner and his delight with Jane had lifted not only the Snyders’ hearts, but Stanford’s too. But mostly Eric was grateful for good company, no landmines over which to maneuver. Only now did Eric realize the tension he and Lynne had negotiated with Sam over the last several weeks. Eric released a long exhalation, saying a quick prayer for Renee. Then he gazed at Stanford, then to Laurie, as the room was now silent.
“What,” Eric asked, glancing at his wife. Lynne’s eyes were wide, although she seemed sleepy. “What’d I miss?”
“You just seemed to announce the night was coming to an end.” Laurie chuckled. “That was the most prolonged sigh of the evening.”
Eric smiled, but it felt false. Yet, he didn’t wish to enlighten his hosts as to the Aherns’ troubles. “Just thinking about my next project. But that’s still a few weeks away.”
“Stan says you’ll be painting Sam’s portrait.” Now Laurie grew serious. “How’d that come about?”
Eric felt Lynne stiffen against him and he cleared his throat. “Well, Sam and Renee bought a new car and Sam felt it was time to let the artist in residence work a little magic.”
“Well, I must say,” Stanford began, “I was certainly surprised by this news.”
Now Eric wanted to laugh, for the envy in Stanford’s tone couldn’t be disguised. “Well, to be honest, Sam caught me off guard. I’d been bugging him for ages, for years actually. We’ll get started after I’ve had a few days to overcome jet lag.”
Stanford nodded, but still seemed on the back foot, which made Eric smile. “Well, I’ll be very interested to see how that comes along.” Then Stanford glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. “My, look at the time. All this conversation just makes the evening fly.”
Eric gazed at Laurie, who didn’t appear tired, but Lynne sagged against Eric’s shoulder. “Indeed. I can’t believe a week’s already passed. I’ll be painting Sam’s new car before I know it.”
Avoiding Stanford’s eyes, Eric focused on Laurie’s face. That man’s happy countenance was a balm on Eric’s soul. Only Stanford was jealous, yet he would be as hard to capture on canvas as Eric’s best friend. Although, now that Sam had broken the ice, perhaps getting the New Yorkers to pose, even for a sketch, wouldn’t be as impossible as Eric had first thought. Maybe within the safety of their apartment, or perhaps at Michael’s, Stanford would permit his guard to drop. Ground had certainly been gained for such an action in how easily Stanford now spoke to Lynne or toted Jane. But getting that man to stand near his partner for more than a moment would be a test of just how comfortable Stanford felt around the Snyders. Eric wouldn’t sketch that man surreptitiously, as he had Sam’s parents. Yet, the drawing might be as informal as how Eric had painted Joe and Marjorie standing beside each other, speaking to their children. Joe was chatting with Ted while Marjorie laughed next to Joan. Eric wasn’t sure how he might place Stanford and Laurie, maybe Stanford with his father, Laurie holding Jane. That might be the best way to display the couple two-dimensionally, then maybe…. Eric smiled as Stanford stood, stretching his arms over his head. Yet his yawn was as artificial as those Lynne had proffered the first night they ate dinner within this apartment. This time, however, the falsehoods had nothing to do with where people slept. Eric smiled, then kissed his wife’s cheek. Lynne stirred from authentic slumber, causing her husband to shiver; might she be….
A rush of excitement coursed through him, but it had no bearing on whether or not he would sketch the duo who also seemed ready to end this night. Laurie stood close to his partner, although the men didn’t hold hands. As Eric got to his feet, helping Lynne to hers, Eric wished for his sketch pad and pencil. But maybe after Lynne was asleep, Eric might steal back to this room and from memory set down an indelible image. Perhaps European art critics felt that the nudes of Lynne were modern classics. Eric wouldn’t refute them, but just as meaningful would be the canvas of one couple which might never been seen by those outside of the Taylor and Abrams clans. Yet sometimes the most precious pieces were appreciated by a rare audience, like Seth’s sculptures, or the abstract paintings in Minnesota. Or a man and his car, Eric grinned, as Laurie embraced Lynne, Stanford doing the same, those men offering to Eric their simple goodnights.
Eric reciprocated those sentiments, then escorted his wife to their room. Closing the door, Eric let all other considerations slip away as Lynne’s eager kiss told her husband she wasn’t quite ready for sleep. Eric chuckled as Lynne initiated further intimacies. Then he moaned softly as his wife led him to a bed that seemed just as perfect as theirs back home.
Two weeks had passed since the Snyders’ departure and for Sam Ahern those fourteen days had felt like the slowest in over a decade. Time dragged whether he cooked, counseled vets, or visited Frannie, and it seemed to go most slowly in the evenings when he and Renee found themselves alone with very little to say to one another.
Only when Sam drove to the Snyders’ to check the mail did time seem to fly, or at least it seemed normal. Maybe it was that at Eric and Lynne’s, there was little for Sam to do; he collected the mail, of which there was more than Sam had imagined. Most of the letters were from Europe; Sam was stunned that every day a stack was stuffed into their box. He had no idea the level of appreciation for Eric’s paintings, and it was one of the few things providing conversation with his wife. Each night Renee asked how much mail had arrived that day, for she too was just as shocked. And every evening Sam remarked that yes, the Snyders’ post box was again full, making both Sam and his wife smile.
The Snyders’ dining table was piled high with correspondence, the plants were watered, but no bills had arrived for Sam to pay on Eric’s behalf. Tulips were blooming, which Sam denoted to Eric in a brief letter, but other than that, little remained for Sam to report. He wouldn’t tell Eric how much post waited; he wanted to surprise that man with the abundant correspondence. He also wouldn’t burden Eric with how empty Sam’s life now seemed. That emptiness wasn’t solely due to the Snyders’ absence. It was a daily realization on Sam’s part to how his earlier stubbornness had caused a marital rift that had changed the entire tenor of Sam’s existence.
Even when Eric, Lynne, and Jane returned, time for Sam would never again flow properly. Sam didn’t consider how time might move while posing for Eric, because in having made that decision, he’d hoped to resuscitate a part of his marriage. And while that action had appeased Renee to some degree, she remained adamant about not wanting to adopt, nor did she speak of visiting the Snyders when they returned. She had accompanied Sam to the Canfields after church yesterday, spending much of that Easter Sunday speaking with Fran, occasionally giving the older children her attention. And Sam had been grateful for those brief moments, for instead of chastising Sally, Will, and Jaime, Renee had been kind. Not quite her old self, Sam had noticed, nor did she interact with the younger Canfields. Sam took that task, playing Chutes and Ladders with Denise, Brad, and Johnny, or reading to Helene. She’d sat on his lap and while she was much bigger and more animated than Jane, those moments had relieved a part of Sam’s heart that for years and years he had resolutely denied needed any attention whatsoever.
Sitting in his quiet kitchen, a pot of stew simmering on the stove, Sam felt his chest muscle ache. That morning Renee had commented how quickly the year was passing, what with Easter now over. He’d wanted to agree, for in a way she was right. Spring’s healing touch was clearly visible all over town, trees leafing out, flowers bright in gardens. The longest winter in his life was effectively over, yet why did minutes feel like hours, the last two weeks some strange set of month-long days each. This was worse than when Sam was in Korea, wondering not only if he would ever get home again, but why in the world had he enlisted? Why purposely put distance between himself and Renee and….
Then Sam wanted to pound the table; when he got home, he then set the largest amount of space he could find between them, leaving it to fester there. And now the result of that erroneous action made him ache not only within his ribcage, but all over. His legs hurt, his head tingled, he felt feverish. He scoffed, sipped his luke-warm coffee, then stood to refill the cup. But as he stood, Sam grew dizzy and had to grip the table to remain on his feet. He sat down again, assuming he’d either stood too soon or maybe the caffeine was too much. He’d grown used to drinking decaf with Eric and Lynne, but Sam hadn’t been around them in two weeks. Lynne had sent an Easter card, which Renee had glanced at, but otherwise hadn’t acknowledged. Sam had set the card on the mantle with others from family. What had the Snyders done yesterday, Sam wondered.
He thought about getting up again to look over Lynne’s brief note, written on the back of the card. Maybe she had shared their plans, but as Sam went to stand, his knees buckled. Immediately he retook his chair, breaking out in a sweat. He’d felt fine that morning, well actually he’d noticed the room spinning right when he woke. But he’d dismissed that, and some slight nausea right after he ate breakfast. But now he truly felt sick, maybe one of the Canfield kids had given him a bug. Sam considered calling Frannie to ask, but instead he remained in his seat, not certain he was well enough to walk to the phone, much less make the call.
Was this some adverse reaction to time moving like a turtle, he suddenly wondered. Or was this what he deserved after so many years of ignoring his wife’s desires. As that thought wafted through his mind, he didn’t simply discard it as he usually did. Sam wasn’t depressed, not like Renee had been, or maybe still was. But Sam did feel culpable, which while not the same as depression wasn’t a positive sensation. Yet, there was nothing he could do to change Renee’s mind. Her heart was stony in regards to children, or at least kids for them, or maybe youngsters in general. That made Sam’s stomach ache, but it was the truth. She hadn’t paid a whit of attention to the four youngest Canfields, she couldn’t bear to see her Lutheran goddaughter. If she still worked at the hospital, would she even be able to assist in the maternity ward? Years ago Renee had remarked that she never minded being called into the labor ward, but that Lynne only went if absolutely necessary. At the time, Sam hadn’t done more than nod at Renee’s statement, but now he pondered it, amid an increasing headache and nagging queasiness.
Finally Sam had to close his eyes, putting aside his wife, Lynne, and kids. A terrible sickness was assaulting him and he wondered if he could manage to reach his bed. From where had this bug arrived and so quickly? He managed one wry smile, that for how slowly time had seemed to be going, now it felt like an oncoming train, or maybe the wreck had already occurred. Opening his eyes, Sam blinked, everything in his vision doubled. He had never felt this ill, well, not for a while. If nothing else, he’d never been so violently attacked by what was now dogging his heels. Could he walk to bed or would he have to crawl? Sam stood, again grasping the table, unsure how he would reach his bedroom. If he could get to the sofa, perhaps that would be good enough. He turned around, leaving one hand on the table. With the other, he reached for the kitchen doorway. By outstretched fingertips he gripped the doorframe, then took halting steps, breathing deeply but still feeling miserable. He could see the couch, merely feet away, yet it seemed like a mile separated him from where he could lay down.
As if a battlefield loomed in the distance, Sam Ahern took stock; the sofa was about ten feet from where he stood. Bile was creeping up his throat, but if he was horizontal, he might not throw up on the carpet. Yet his head ache so badly, maybe he should try for the bathroom. He glanced that way, but even the hallway seemed too far to go. The sofa, he just needed to lie down for a bit.
After several minutes, he staggered from the kitchen doorway, across half of the living room, falling into the couch with a loud plop. He wanted to vomit, his knees knocked, and his head pounded. With all his remaining strength, Sam swung his legs onto the sofa, grabbed a knitted afghan Lynne had made them years ago, then did his best to cover himself with that blanket. Then he closed his eyes, praying for release from this suffering, whether it be sleep or death. At that point, Sam didn’t care which option God had planned.
When Sam stirred, he was in his own bed, under blankets, a cool rag on his forehead. Renee was sitting beside him, her eyes wide and opaque. Sam closed his, then reopened them. Renee’s face was streaked with tears and his first thought was had someone died? Then he tried to speak, but another round of nausea stilled his voice. Maybe he was near death, but if so, at least his head would stop throbbing.
“Oh Sam, oh honey!” Renee’s tone was soft, but the words were said with force. She leaned over, kissing his forehead, but her lips felt cool. Then Sam realized how warm he was, maybe it was all the blankets. He wanted to ask, but again felt too poorly to talk.
“Sam, listen to me. You’re about as sick as Eric was on Christmas. I’ve got half a mind to call Ted and have him help me get you to the hospital. Sam, do you hear me?”
He nodded, which took great effort. He also wanted to shake his head about going to the hospital, but when he tried, he just couldn’t manage it. Did he have some strange flu and if so, how were Fran, Louie, and the kids? Sam had spent time around each one and the last thing he wanted was for one of them to be so afflicted.
He wanted to say all of that to Renee, but couldn’t. Instead he stared at her, wondering if they still shared a deep enough of a bond that maybe she could sense those queries. Her eyes were so white, he’d never seen her look so frightened. Then he was surprised she hadn’t already taken him to the hospital. But perhaps like Lynne had been entreated with Eric, Renee had been asked to wait, or maybe Sam was going to kick the bucket here and now.
So many symptoms hit him, Sam wouldn’t be shocked if this was it. Yet, Renee hadn’t called St. Anne’s. Neither priest stood at Sam’s bedside to offer last rites; maybe it wasn’t yet Sam’s time. He pondered that for a few seconds, then a raspy chuckle escaped his lips. God wasn’t going to take Sam Ahern home until he posed for Eric Snyder.
Maybe that sacrifice hadn’t moved Renee to reconsider adoption, but Sam had made that pledge, and it seemed God was going to hold him to it. Sam smiled, although he still felt awful. “Don’t take me to the hospital Renee. I’m gonna be all right.”
“What? Oh Sam, oh dear lord!” Renee began to cry, kissing his hand, then his face. Her lips were still cool, but her tears were warm. Sam wanted to cry as well; she still loved him, what she had said over the last several weeks, but Sam hadn’t realized his doubts. But she did, regardless of how she felt about other subjects, and Sam inwardly thanked God for that fact.
“I’ll be okay honey.” Sam didn’t think to say that was tempting God. Then he wondered if Eric had spoken to Lynne when he’d been near death. Had Sam been that ill, he wasn’t sure. But he knew, without reservation, that this ailment wasn’t fatal. And the last place he wanted to be was in the sterile confines of Renee’s former workplace. “If you need to call Ted or Henry for an extra hand, that’s fine. But I want you to take care of me, if you can.” Did she have any time off accrued yet, Sam wondered. She had only been at Dr. Howard’s practice a few months.
“I’ve already called, I’m off the rest of the week. I’ve been home most of the afternoon, just had a feeling something was up. Vivian told me to take as much time as I needed.” Renee wiped her face, but her tone was still tearful. “I might call Ted to come pray for you in person. Well, I’m gonna have to tell your parents.” Renee sighed. “By this time tomorrow, there’ll be more family here than we can shake a stick at.”
Slight brassiness edged her worried voice, which alleviated a little of Sam’s headache. He wanted to smile, but felt too lousy. Instead he nodded, but that made him more nauseous. Yet, he would recover. That did stir his grin. “Don’t forget to send someone to Eric and Lynne’s. For the mail,” Sam added.
Renee nodded. “Oh of course. Ted or Henry can do that and just bring the mail back here.”
“Yeah, not much room left on their table anyways.”
Renee patted Sam’s hand, then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “We’ll worry about that tomorrow. Actually, I’ll go call Ted now, see if he’s busy. Maybe he can stop there on the way and….”
Sam nodded again, then weakly gripped his wife’s hand. “Call Frannie too, see if the kids are all okay.”
Renee grasped her husband’s hand with force. “Already did that, she said they’re fine. I also told her to pray for you. My goodness Sam, you scared the life outta me!”
He smiled, hearing that depth of fear. For how terrible he felt, one glimmer of hope coursed through him; Renee did love him. Then he shivered, wondering why he’d carried that subconscious doubt. The last year of their marriage had been fraught with so much tension, anger, and bitter disappointment; they had even weathered a brief separation. Just that morning he had been unsure about their future, but now, those considerations felt like how Sam had pondered going home while squatting in a Korean foxhole. At times why did reality seem so fleeting? Then his heart throbbed; last Thanksgiving he and Renee had been so close to making a family. They had been at his parents’ house, along with all of his siblings and their broods, which included the Canfields. It had been the first time in years that Sam and Renee had celebrated that holiday with either of their clans; Sam had been roasting his own turkey, usually for Eric and Lynne, for ages. But last year had been different and now this year wasn’t what he’d expected, except that his wife still loved and needed him.
Sam knew that not only from her tremulous voice, but now in how hard she wept, leaning over him, her red hair splayed out on the blanket like a raging fire. Sam patted her head, although it took great effort. Had they stopped going to family gatherings because he hadn’t wanted kids, Sam mused, as Renee kept crying. Would they go this year, he wondered? Then he inhaled deeply, still feeling horrible but alive. He was alive and Renee loved him and he had a date with a certain painter to keep. Sam might not get back to Eric’s to check the mail, but when Eric returned, Sam had a task waiting. Ted or Henry could water Lynne’s plants. Sam would stay home and let his wife look after him.
The following day Laurie received a phone call from Renee; she had been hoping to speak with Eric, but as long as Laurie could get the news of Sam’s illness passed along, Renee would be grateful. Laurie posed several questions, which at first surprised Renee, then she permitted his queries. The Snyders hadn’t told the New Yorkers the truth about the Aherns, which made Renee bite her lower lip. But the main fact Renee now considered was how much she truly loved and needed her husband, who was still sick as a dog she said to Laurie, but by the time Eric returned, Sam would be back on his feet.
Laurie never noticed how Renee omitted Lynne and Jane from the conversation; Renee seemed overwhelmed by Sam’s sudden sickness, which she still wasn’t sure how to categorize. It came upon Sam like the flu, but no one around them was ill. Laurie told Renee he’d call Eric at Agatha’s, where the Snyders were spending the week. Laurie also passed along Agatha’s telephone number, in case Renee needed to reach Eric. And that to please let Laurie and Stanford know how Sam was getting along. Renee said she would, then she ended the call, wondering when the Snyders returned to Manhattan if they would spill the beans. The New Yorkers seemed fully unaware of how things had changed on the West Coast.
That was all the analysis Renee allowed, for she was too busy nursing her husband. Thankfully his brothers were happy to check on the Snyder home, leaving Sam in the care of a nurse who didn’t mind some cooking and cleaning in addition to tending to her patient. Renee also spoke to Eric, who had called shortly after Renee got off the phone with Laurie, then Eric rang again a few days later, checking in. By then Sam was much improved, although still spending most of his time in bed. Only his brother Ted knew just how stricken Sam had been, and to Renee Ted acknowledged that fact; if she had called him when she first found Sam unconscious on the sofa, Ted would have given his brother last rites.
Now Ted came by daily, his hands full of letters. Both he and Henry had found it incredible how much post Eric’s paintings generated, although they had seen last summer’s exhibit, not to mention the Ahern portraits. The brothers confided to Sam that after Frannie was out of danger, they had gone together, wanting to view what else Eric had created, and that both had been moved to tears. Something about the wildlife contrasting with such accurately measured family portraits provided two Ahern men with hope for their eldest sister, also peace that God’s ways couldn’t be fathomed by mere human beings. That much of Eric’s work was now touring Europe was to Ted very good, although he was glad his family, and Renee’s too, weren’t included in the retrospective. Ted did share that with Renee, making her smile.
Father Theodore Ahern, or Father Ted as he was called even within his own family, had for years noticed slight friction between Sam and Renee, but hadn’t said anything about it, feeling that as a priest who was he to advocate parenthood to anyone? He felt that way toward his own parishioners, not badgering those who obviously weren’t following Catholic teachings when it came to procreation, nor slavishly praising parents with numerous children. Within his own large family, most of his siblings had several kids, except for Joan, and Sam of course. Ted had been heartbroken for Fran and Louie, but like Renee, he had wondered the purpose of two more offspring for that couple. Over the course of time, Fran had permitted her brother to divulge his thoughts in a priestly fashion as well as that of a younger sibling. Frannie had revealed that she felt the same, easing some of her anguish and facilitating her healing.
Yet, neither of those siblings had shared their views about Sam and Renee. Somehow speaking about a couple for whom conception wasn’t possible seemed too delicate, although now Fran was in the same situation. But Fran never rued her hysterectomy; it had saved her life and actually improved relations with her husband, for the specter of pregnancy was gone. Not that she had told Ted those details, but she had inferred how grateful she was to be alive as the mother of seven healthy children. As a priest, Ted found Frannie’s faith to be some of the strongest he had ever encountered. As her brother, he sometimes felt it was a detriment to their religion that women weren’t permitted stronger roles within the church.
But Frannie stayed away from Sam that week, on the off chance that his illness was contagious. Joan did the same, but Joe and Marjorie Ahern stopped by, along with Henry, who would collect the Snyders’ mail and water their houseplants next week. Sam was still so weak that Renee couldn’t be expected to leave his side, even Dr. Howard visited. He wasn’t Sam’s physician, but he’d wanted to offer his assistance. Yet there wasn’t anything he could do that Renee wasn’t already providing. Sam needed rest, fluids, and a slow return to his usual activities.
Renee didn’t ponder whether or not Sam would be up to posing for Eric when the Snyders came home. She did post a letter Sam composed to Eric, having addressed it to Laurie and Stanford’s apartment. While Sam’s family visited, Renee did the shopping, the only time she left her husband’s side. Marjorie had brought over milk and bread, but going to the market gave Renee time to get away, although she didn’t think about anything more than what was written on her list.
On Friday afternoon, Renee left the house with several errands to run; the new car needed gas, which Henry had offered to do, but Sam had explicitly declined that favor. They’d had to break the news about their recent purchase, and while relatives seemed unbothered with their good fortune, the last thing Sam wanted was for family to attend to the vehicle. Renee thought he was being ridiculous; it would be her clan to squawk more about the Aherns having two cars, but Sam had insisted. Henry and Ted had laughed at their younger brother, that Sam didn’t want anyone else to have the pleasure of taking the new vehicle for a spin. Renee had detected no jealousy from those men and Sam’s folks were still concerned about their son’s precarious health. It was up to Renee to fill the Chevy’s tank, but it was an easy task to manage.
It was first on her list and she crossed it off while the attendant washed her windshield. Then she stopped at the pharmacy, picking up Epsom salts and another thermometer. Then she drove to Dr. Howard’s office to check in with Vivian, who told her to take next week on a day by day basis. Renee thanked Vivian, finding the office was exactly as she had left it. Renee was relieved to have changed jobs, only a few people to whom she was obligated.
Grocery shopping took longer; Renee wasn’t overly familiar with where items were located, and several times she had to double-back through the aisles. She stood in what seemed a rather slow line, but was gracious to the checker and bagger. The bag boy pushed Renee’s cart, placing her items in the Chevy’s trunk, then sheepishly he admired the new car. Renee smiled at him, he barely looked out of his teens. Maybe he thought it novel that she was driving the Bel-Air, but she didn’t have time to explain the reason.
Right before she started the engine, she glanced at her list; everything else had been crossed off and with a small sense of satisfaction she drew a line through market. Starting the car, she considered her husband; did Sam miss her or was he asleep? Marjorie had brought over some yarn to knit, so if Sam was napping, she wouldn’t be bored. If he was awake, perhaps they were chatting, plenty of family gossip to ponder. Renee had hurried in every place she stopped, well, all but at the gas station, but even while there she had checked her list, wanting to get everything done in the timeliest manner possible. Yet, Sam was in good hands, she hadn’t needed to rush.
With cold items in the trunk, now Renee had an impetus to get home quickly. However, she found herself driving with care, or rather, she was taking her sweet time, meandering along streets, slowing down as a light changed from green to yellow. But the bag boy had put all the perishables together and Renee’s house wasn’t far. The Aherns lived on the eastern side of town near the shopping district. The west side was where Renee worked, the older part of town, also where the Snyders worshipped, which of course wasn’t far from where they lived.
Had anyone told Marek Jagucki about Sam’s illness? Probably not, for Renee hadn’t heard from the pastor all week. Maybe Eric hadn’t wanted to make a long-distance call just to tell him, or at least not from Stanford’s housekeeper’s home. Eric might telephone the pastor next week from Laurie and Stanford’s place, or he might not say anything at all, feeling now that Renee wasn’t seeing Marek for counseling, it wasn’t relevant. Or that it wasn’t Eric’s place to share the news.
At the next light, all Renee had to do was turn right; her house was a few blocks down that street. She hadn’t bought anything to put in the deep freeze, just lunchmeat, butter, and cheese as Marjorie had brought the milk yesterday, not that Sam was eating anything so rich. He was barely finishing a bowl of chicken soup and most of Renee’s purchases were canned goods. As she approached the light, which was red, she thought how easy it was to heat up chicken noodle soup for the two of them, maybe some tomato soup this weekend, if Sam was up for it. Renee stopped at the light, absently indicating left, thinking how fortuitous it was that saltines had been on sale at the market. She had bought two boxes, just in case, and as the light turn green, she went left, mulling over how well soda crackers complimented an ordinary bowl of soup.
Renee had never been culinary-minded. Her mother was an excellent cook and Renee had preferred to let Marie spoil her family while Renee happily washed dishes or played cards with her father. Maybe Renee should have insisted on learning more domestic tasks, but those skills would have been wasted. Initially her parents had questioned her decision to enter nursing school, but then they offered their full support. Was that because they sensed their daughter needed a profession, that perhaps motherhood wasn’t meant for Renee?
That notion had never come up, not when Renee was younger, nor last fall when she had gone back home. Renee had chosen nursing because of stories her uncles told about their exploits in World War II; how kind and competent were those women who had cared for them. Had a romantic idea to tend injured men driven Renee into a job in which she excelled and how ironic that it was her own husband who had needed her attention early on in their marriage. He needed her now, she smiled to herself, then she took stock at where she was; how in the world had she ended up at St. Matthew’s Church?
Pulling over to the curb, Renee took several deep breaths, her heart racing. She’d been nearly home, hadn’t she gone right? Obviously not, she muttered under her breath. Shaking her head, she wondered how scatter-brained she must be to have missed that turn, yet not only had she missed it, she had blatantly gone the opposite way. She clucked to herself, then put the car into gear. She started to make a three-point turn, but as she approached the curb in front of St. Matthew’s, Marek Jagucki trotted down the front steps.
His smile was wide and he waved, causing Renee to nearly stop breathing. But she did inhale, the air going down her lungs with difficulty, making her choke, which forced her to slam on the brakes. She wasn’t parallel to the curb, but close enough that no one would hit her. Then she chided herself; she couldn’t pull away, for now Marek stood within feet of the Chevy. Renee would have to roll down her window, but what would she say?
Why was she there, she wondered, as Marek continued to grin. She could tell him Sam was sick, but how would that explain her presence? Stopping by St. Matthew’s hadn’t been on her list; clearly this errand wasn’t planned. Then stinging tears burned in the corners of her eyes. The last time she’d been here, righteous indignation had carried her home. Now at home the man she had been willing to give up was being cared for by his mother. And Renee was wasting time in getting back to him, dawdling here for reasons only known to….
Marek had stepped closely to the car; Renee needed to roll down the window, lest she insult the pastor. As she did, she trembled, feeling her life wasn’t her own. God had brought her here, the same God who had taken the twins, who had made Sam enlist, and who for whatever purpose changed Eric Snyder into a hawk. That God had also led Renee to St. Matthews that afternoon seemed equally mysterious, but she swallowed that notion, rolling down her window, then looking Marek’s direction. “Hello Pastor. How are you?”
“I’m well. And how are you Renee?”
“Um, I’m, uh, you see….” She had wanted to say she was lost, even if she knew this town like the back of her hand. For over a year, Renee hadn’t felt like her feet were firmly under her, her life tossed about like a buoy on rough seas. Why shouldn’t she take this aberration like everything else that had occurred; there seemed to be little Renee could count on anymore, nothing was certain. Well, Sam still loved her, she knew that. But other than that, nothing else felt stable.
“It’s a fine day for a drive out and this’s a beautiful automobile.” Marek stood back, gazing at the car. Then he smiled again, lightly tapping the top of the Chevy. “Are you on your way home from work?”
“Oh no, actually, you see….” Renee inhaled, then held her breath. So much to tell the pastor, where was she supposed to start? That she’d found Sam nearly on his deathbed at the beginning of the week seemed like ancient news; there was the call to Laurie, all the Snyder mail gathering on her kitchen table, not to mention that when Eric returned, Sam was going to sit for a portrait. Then Renee shivered. The last thing Sam wanted to do was let Eric paint his picture. Had that been what caused Sam’s sickness, yet, he wasn’t dead. And when Eric came home, Renee had no doubt that Sam would follow through with that agreement. Eric would probably paint Sam at the Aherns’, better than making Sam drive to the Snyders’. If sessions went long, Renee wouldn’t have to come home to an abandoned house, aware that everyone else was all the way across town.
Yet that’s where she was now; Dr. Howard’s office was a few streets over, then Lynne and Eric’s…. Renee bit her tongue to keep tears at bay. She hadn’t allowed that woman’s name into her heart for what felt like ages. Renee had concentrated on Eric, the only safe Snyder. But what about Lynne?
All that Renee knew about Lynne was that her houseplants were in good shape. Ted and Henry both had commented about making sure they were well watered. But suddenly Renee was curious about Eric’s wife; had she made a peach pie for the New Yorkers, and what about for Stanford’s cook? That’s where Lynne and Eric were now, in Queens, a place Renee knew nothing about, not that she knew much about Manhattan, although Lynne had shared stories about Laurie and Stanford’s apartment, and about Michael Taylor’s too. Renee had heard a little about Central Park, and of course the magnificent gallery where Eric’s paintings had been displayed. Manhattan had sounded like another world to Renee, maybe Queens would be more of a place she could identify with, once the Snyders returned and shared their tales.
Hot tears fell down Renee’s cheeks. How would she learn anything? She had no plans to chat with Lynne and would only see Eric in passing when she came home from work and he packed up for the day, and those days wouldn’t be many, for Eric wouldn’t press Sam to pose for longer than was necessary. And Sam would only pass along the barest of details, for Renee had made it plain she didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to involve any of the Snyders within her life because her life no longer held room for their sort of happiness. Lynne’s joy was now wrapped up in….
Quickly Renee focused on the steering wheel; she needed to gather her bearings, she had to return to Sam. Marek had driven her home once already, but now there was no one to retrieve their car, or to drive the pastor back here. Renee smiled, wiped her cheeks, then glanced at the open window. She tried to avoid Marek’s face, but he was looking right at her. His brown eyes were wide, also gentle. It was as if he saw right through her, leaving Renee feeling naked, but unafraid.
“I heard your husband wasn’t well,” Marek began. “Fran Canfield called a few days ago, asking me to pray for Sam. She imagined you were too busy, plus with the Snyders away. I hope it’s all right that she told me.”
Slowly Renee nodded, immediately feeling guilty that it was Frannie to seek Marek’s intersession on Sam’s behalf. But then Renee had been making sure her husband didn’t die on her. Then she trembled, aware of why Sam was still among the living. Had this Polish pastor considered the same notion, Renee then wondered. Probably, she sighed, again finding herself gazing into Marek’s large brown eyes.
“I took the liberty of speaking with Stanford Taylor,” Marek continued. “Eric left Stanford’s number with me, just in case. Stanford said that Eric and Lynne were in Queens this week, but that they knew about Sam. How is he feeling?”
“Oh, um, better, I mean, a little better. Well, he’s much better than he was on Monday.” Renee sighed again. “I had to get some groceries and fill up the new car. His mom’s with him right now, he’s still pretty weak.”
“Well, please tell him my prayers are with you both. I’m sure it’s quite taxing nursing one’s spouse.” Marek wore a thoughtful smile. “I hope you’re taking good care of yourself.”
Renee nodded, then stared at the pastor. While his brown eyes were gentle, his words carried a different meaning. Yet, his tone wasn’t chastising; Renee realized his concern and it wasn’t solely related to her physical well-being.
“All right, well, if you’ve been to the market, I’ll say goodbye. I don’t want your perishables to expire.” Marek stood back, again admiring the car. Then he met Renee’s gaze. “Might Sam be up for a visitor next week?”
“Oh, um, certainly, I mean, if you have time.”
“I always have time for friends,” Marek smiled. “I’ll ring before I come over, perhaps on Tuesday?”
Slowly Renee nodded; she had never considered Father Riley or Father Markham as her friend. But then Marek was Eric’s pastor. And Tuesday would be fine, Renee had nothing scheduled anymore on that day. As that thought entered her head, she stared sharply at the man now standing on the sidewalk. But Marek wasn’t looking at her; he seemed to be focusing on the car. Had he said Tuesday for a reason or was it simply a free afternoon? “Um, sure, Tuesday should be fine,” Renee stammered. “But please do call first, you know, just in case.”
“Of course. In the meantime, give Sam my best. Hope to see you both next week.”
“Yes, next week. And I will, I mean, give him your regards.” Renee tried not to meet Marek’s gaze as she spoke, yet how subtly he had gone from inspecting the Chevy to finding her eyes. And in his eyes again Renee was struck by his kindness, also his knowledge. He hadn’t implied any guilt that it was one of Sam’s relatives to call him, nor had he pressed as to why Renee had driven to St. Matthew’s. Renee rolled up her window, then put the car into gear. Marek waved as she pulled away, but he didn’t loiter on the sidewalk as she peeked in the rear view mirror. No one stood in front of St. Matthew’s as if that entire conversation had been a figment in Renee’s head.
Yet, as she drove home, she knew Marek would call next Tuesday, and by then Sam probably would be ready for a new face. By Tuesday, Renee might even go back to work, albeit for a half day. And by the time the Snyders came home, Sam would be mostly recovered, nothing to hinder him from posing in front of the Bel-Air. Well, he might not want to stand for the entire time, or maybe this illness would disappear as suddenly as it had hit him. As Renee stopped at a red light, she glanced to her right, from where she had made that erroneous left turn. Then she shook her head, focusing on the stoplight. As it turned green, she hit the accelerator, hoping Sam’s mother wouldn’t notice if the butter seemed a little soft. Renee would tell Sam about this incident privately, in part that she needed to offer Marek’s regards. And that only Sam might comprehend why for no apparent reason she had gone left instead of right.
On Sunday afternoon, a great peace filled Eric’s heart. His stomach was just as full, for Agatha, her sister Belle, and Lynne had prepared a meal that Eric felt would never be beaten within his lifetime. Not even Sam at the top of his game could have out-cooked these women, each with specialties that wove harmoniously as if proclaiming the entry to heaven waited in one New York borough.
Agatha had been in charge of the meats while Belle provided the side dishes. Lynne baked pies, but not only apple, peach, and pumpkin. In that week, she had recreated several favorites from Agatha and Belle’s childhood, pecan and sweet potato, blackberry cobbler and a banana pudding dish that Jane loved. Eric’s trousers were a little tight, even with all the walks around the neighborhood they had taken. He would watch what he ate for the next couple of weeks, yet there was still the visit to Laurie’s Aunt Wilma to consider, not to mention all that Agatha prepared when again the Snyders returned to Manhattan. Eric wondered if the week Agatha spent spoiling his family was indeed an extension of her life working for Stanford. This was supposed to be Agatha’s vacation, however she seemed to have been in her own kitchen for much of it. Yet, she never seemed unhappy; Eric had a bulging sketchbook as proof that Agatha Morris was most content within the confines of domesticity.
Her sister Belle seemed a similar sort, although she also liked being outdoors; the women lived just a few blocks apart, much like Rose Abrams and Wilma Gordon. And like Laurie’s family, it was women in charge in Queens, although Agatha and Belle weren’t widows. Their husbands were quiet men who allowed their wives to cluck and banter, yet Donald Morris and Al Washington provided the necessary strength to their families. At times that power seemed invisible, when it was the sisters to round up their children for various tasks. Then those men would stand at their wives’ sides, their silent yet present personas firmly upholding familial law.
Eric, Lynne, and Jane had been welcomed into Agatha and Donald’s family as if long lost relatives. The Snyders were also now a part of the Washington clan, or maybe Eric had adopted all of them, for a series awaited once he finished Sam’s portrait. Or maybe, Eric considered, sitting in Agatha’s small back yard, Sam’s picture might be postponed. Depending on how Sam was recovering, Eric might start with reducing the girth within his sketchbook, a host of drawings waiting to come to life.
There had been a multitude created while Agatha, Belle, and Lynne cooked together, Lynne sharing her pie crust recipe with two women who claimed it was exactly the same ratio of ingredients used by their late mother. While Jane rested in the arms of Agatha’s eldest daughter, Eric deftly recreated the scene, then another, followed by more sketches. He wouldn’t paint all of them, but after two weeks away from his craft, he had needed this time with pencil and paper. And immersing himself within this new world had given novel spark to the drawings, for Queens was nothing like Manhattan or the Snyders’ life back home. Not even around Sam and Renee’s large families had Eric encountered this slice of the American experience. It hummed with ties to ancient southern days, as if this wasn’t New York State but Mississippi, Georgia, or Alabama. The sense of propriety and manners was very old fashioned, but so inclusive. Eric couldn’t wait to translate that warmth and rich history, feeling blessed that such an opportunity had been cast in his direction.
He had sought permission of all his subjects and no one had turned down the chance to be captured by who Agatha claimed was the finest painter of his generation. To Eric’s surprise, many of her relatives had seen his exhibit last fall, some of the younger family members speaking in a tone of near duress, which had made him smile. Those older had lavished praise upon his paintings, the blue barn garnering much of the attention, but other pictures were noted, especially The Pastor and His Charge. Jane was loved by all and the Snyders’ pastor was also admired; Belle’s mother-in-law had quietly expressed to Eric how that man had suffered a great trial, but seemed to have made his peace with it. Eric had nodded, wondering how much this woman had endured within her life, some of it spent there in Queens, but much had been lived in the Mississippi Delta under great hardship. Eric had heard similar sentiments from the elders of Agatha’s family, although none of them mentioned the nudes, nor had Lynne heard any remarks concerning those paintings. It was as if Eric’s work didn’t tarry from family portraits and landscapes.
What Eric wanted to convey, when he began this series, wasn’t how he’d felt when he had painted the Ahern and Nolan clans. Life in Queens, as he thought of it, would be similar to how he’d initially captured his wife amid her hobbies. Yet how much deeper would these canvases display somewhat ordinary tasks, from kitchen duties to youngsters skipping rope to men smoking cigarettes while chatting about baseball. Eric had heard nothing about Sam’s beloved Red Sox; in Queens all the talk was about the Dodgers and Giants, even if those teams no longer resided in New York.
Eric felt this series would surpass those he painted of Lynne for a couple of reasons; his skills were sharper and there was nothing to hide. He wanted complete openness to be experienced within these paintings, similar to the nudes he had created of his wife, who would appear in only of a couple of the canvases. Agatha had purposely asked Eric to keep Lynne within at least a few pieces, ones that she wanted to display within her home. Eric understood the meaning, which wasn’t merely about who stood within the paintings, but that now the Snyders were members of Agatha’s family. Belle had said much the same, warming Eric’s heart, and making him chuckle; just how many relatives had he, Lynne, and Jane inherited upon this trip east?
They had been made just as welcome in their comparatively brief visit to Brooklyn, Lynne collecting a bevy of addresses for future correspondence. Yet not all would receive the same sorts of greetings; those in Queens would be put on the Snyder’s Christmas card list, while Lynne would send different notes to the Abrams and Gordon women. Did Jews send Hanukkah cards, Eric wondered, as his wife and daughter approached. Jane’s face was smeared with what looked to be remnants of blackberry cobbler and Lynne’s smile was…. Eric’s pulsed raced. The last two mornings Lynne hadn’t felt well, and while the couple had passed it off as travel weariness, Eric thought something far better was the cause for his wife’s fatigue and slight morning nausea. Yet he only grinned back at the two females, standing from his chair as Jane stretched out her arms, calling for him.
He laughed as Lynne handed over the squealing baby, who immediately nuzzled against his shirt, leaving tell-tale traces of cobbler. “Well hello there,” Eric said to his daughter, kissing her face. Then he looked at his wife, Lynne’s eyes almost teary. “Everything okay?” he asked.
She nodded emphatically, but didn’t speak. Eric knew if she did, a dam would burst, and his heart pounded, but not in fear. He reached out for her with his free arm and Lynne stepped to his side. If they had been alone, she too would have buried her face against him, but instead she merely placed a kiss on his cheek, then gazed out at those gathered near. In her long stare, Eric realized Lynne felt as he did, that these people were now their family. And from how closely she stood beside him, Eric had to wonder if their family would soon be comprised of another member.
He laughed; how ironic that with Jane it took weeks for the couple to comprehend they were expecting a baby. This time that addition was already known, if only just conceived. How Eric deduced that his wife was pregnant he wasn’t certain, other than Lynne felt the same, her gentle whisper of I love you being passed as if she had just seen Dr. Salters. It was Lynne’s tender tone, her needy grip, and a fragrance in the air that had nothing to do with the sumptuous feast just yards away. The scent was of their home, and of church, a healing aroma that Eric had only encountered a few times in his life. He looked at his wife, who now sported tears along her cheeks as well as a radiant beauty worn when she had carried their daughter. Eric trembled, then laughed out loud. Conventional manners of sharing such news weren’t for them, but then nothing about their lives could be deemed usual.
But turning into a hawk didn’t enter Eric’s consciousness; it was due to this family among whom they stood, it was his gift to translate feelings into images, it was in how long they had waited for children, and now, Lynne was again…. Eric kissed her, perhaps more intimately than was proper for such a setting, yet he couldn’t stop, not even with Jane clamoring in his grasp. When Lynne ended the kiss, blushing as she did so, Eric again broke into laughter. When they told their most loved, and now there were plenty to inform, it would be humorous that their second child found its start on the East Coast. Eric had no inkling if Jane would receive a sister or brother, but he was absolutely certain a sibling was coming sometime in early 1964.
Then Eric’s heart skipped a beat; how would they tell the Aherns? For all these newfound relatives, those closest to their hearts would be the hardest with whom to share the news. Perhaps this would drive Renee further away and would it be even more difficult for Sam to pose? Eric closed his eyes, praying for…. He blinked, then gazed at Lynne, her somewhat subdued countenance as if in agreement. She nodded, then gripped his hand, then reached for their daughter. Jane went happily into her mother’s arms, where she leaned her head on Lynne’s shoulder. Eric stroked his wife’s face, then smiled. This news was too good to be clouded with what if’s. Then he chuckled; if Lynne began to suffer from full blown morning sickness in Manhattan, how would they hide it?
“Agatha asked if I was feeling all right.” Lynne’s tone was like an answer to Eric’s unspoken query. Then she smiled. “I said yes, but she frowned at me. I didn’t actually come out and say anything but….”
“But she assumed something.” Eric smiled, shaking his head. “What’d you tell her?”
Lynne giggled. “Well, I said we were trying to add to the family.”
“I think we have.” Eric wanted to place his hand on her belly, but he refrained. He did stroke his wife’s cheek, then caressed Jane’s head. “How do you feel?”
“Okay right now. Well, tired.” Then Lynne laughed. “Oh Eric, do you really think we’re….”
He nodded, then pulled her close. Jane protested the group hug, but her parents ignored her wailing. When Eric released his wife, Jane gave them both a look, which made them laugh out loud. But they kept the reason for their mirth to themselves as Agatha joined them, taking Jane into her arms, consoling the child that she would always be the oldest.
That evening, the Snyders packed up their room; they would return to Manhattan tomorrow by taxi, Agatha with them. She wondered how long that commute would take, but Eric said they were happy to leave as early as was necessary for Agatha to reach work by seven a.m. Agatha had scoffed at that, noting that Laurie could make the coffee. Eric teased that it wouldn’t be as good as what he’d enjoyed all week, rousing Agatha’s smile. Her husband Donald noted that she made two pots every morning, one for them, and one for her employers. No one in Queens spoke of Stanford and Laurie by name, but Eric never felt the couple was talked about behind their backs. Agatha had worked for Stanford for over ten years and was well compensated. The nature of his relationship with Laurie didn’t seem to cause offense among Agatha’s family.
But the men hadn’t been the subject of conversation either; it was as if Agatha never left this neighborhood, yet she worked a long day every Monday through Friday. Eric hadn’t inquired as to how often she received vacations, then he suddenly wished they were going back via the subway. It would make for a prolonged journey, yet it was how Agatha traveled back and forth from this world to one so different. Eric wanted to broach the possibility, but wasn’t sure how. Then he glanced at Lynne, who looked ready for bed. Taking a cab would be far easier on her and he smiled at himself. If she was at all ill at Stanford and Laurie’s, the news would have to be shared, which would cause some awkwardness for Eric’s dealer. But another week of their vacation remained and if how Lynne had felt when first pregnant with Jane was any indicator…. Then Eric sighed. For the first several weeks, Lynne had seemed just fine. By the time Eric realized she was expecting, Lynne was probably seven weeks pregnant. He counted back, finding she was maybe four weeks along; was she carrying twins? For a second he shuddered, then he set it from his mind. Perhaps it was a boy this time, which also gave him pause. Or maybe now that Lynne knew the symptoms, it was harder to ignore them. Eric settled on that, then he counted their suitcases; traveling with a baby wasn’t easy. A vacation with two children might be a long time in coming.
He chuckled, then sat on the edge of the bed. He patted the space beside him and Lynne sat down. “We won’t be back here for a good while,” he said, putting his arm around her.
“Agatha said the same when she asked how I was.” Lynne sighed, then smiled. “Oh Eric, do you really think I’m….” Her voice grew teary and she leaned against him.
“I do, and honey, I love you so much.” He kissed her head, then set his hand on her flat belly. “What a good place to make a baby,” he then whispered.
Lynne stared at him, then giggled. “What, New York?”
“Sure. And who knows where we’ll make number three?”
Now Lynne gaped at her husband. “Oh my goodness.”
“Well, we still don’t know where we made Jane. Now we’ll just have to assume this one was conceived in Manhattan.” Then Eric broke into a belly laugh. “Laurie will never let Stan forget that a child was conceived in their apartment.”
Lynne’s eyes went wide, then she shook her head. “Hopefully he’ll have the good sense to only tease when they’re alone.”
“I agree.” Eric stroked Lynne’s abdomen, then he cleared his throat. “Do you want them to know?”
“I’m not sure. Actually, maybe we can hold off telling them until we get home. Unless, I mean….”
“If you get too sick.” Eric nodded. “That’s probably for the best, or at least the best for Stanford.”
“Uh-huh. But Eric, how’re we gonna tell….”
Lynne’s voice trailed off, then she nestled against her husband’s shoulder. Eric wasn’t sure how they would inform the Aherns, or more rightly Sam. Eric looked forward to telling Marek, Mrs. Kenny, and their friends at St. Matthew’s. He knew Fran and Louie would be happy, but as to their dearest friends? It seemed like rubbing salt in very deep wounds, for both Aherns. “I dunno honey. That one I’m leaving up to God.”
“Me too.” Lynne sighed, then brushed tears from her eyes. “Eric, I do wanna tell Marek, I mean, once we’re home and I’ve seen Dr. Salters. And I know Fran will be pleased for us. But I’m scared, which I realize sounds silly. Maybe we’ll have this baby at the hospital. I don’t think Dr. Salters would wanna deliver without another qualified person present and there just isn’t anyone else I’d trust, I mean, another nurse. Or doctor,” Lynne added.
“Honey, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Eric felt the same, but wouldn’t add to his wife’s slight anxiety. Nor would he consider whether or not he might be among those missing from the list. “Let’s just enjoy our last week of vacation and deal with the rest of it when we get home.”
Lynne nodded, then smiled. “If I thought I’d be feeling fine in the morning, I’d be tempted to ask Agatha if we could take the subway. I’ll probably never get the chance again.”
Now Eric laughed. “I thought the same thing. But I think she’s looking forward to not using that method of transportation. And what you wanna bet that in several hours you might change your mind?”
Lynne chuckled. “Maybe so, well, for me. Agatha seemed pretty excited about not having to use the train. Eric, I know we won’t be coming out here again for a while, but when we do, if they’ll have us, I wanna stay here. I’ve never felt so, so….”
Lynne burst into tears and Eric pulled her close to muffle the sound. Their door was partially closed, and while Eric didn’t think Lynne’s mood would be easily discerned, he wanted to shield her. Even if she wasn’t pregnant, this sort of outburst wouldn’t be unexpected; they had been away from home for three weeks and while both had enjoyed every minute of the break, it was stressful to go from one place to another. But Lynne wept hard, although not from sorrow. It was due to hormones, Eric smiled, and knowledge; for years and years the Snyders’ world had consisted of only themselves. Very slowly others had been gathered into their tiny circle, but now walls had been torn down, not painfully, but the abundance of love did feel somewhat altering. Eric had never collected so many sketches within such a short time and his right arm had ached from disuse. And to his chagrin, none of those drawings were of one couple who had still avoided his gift. Would Eric get a chance to put Stanford and Laurie onto paper? Maybe he would record their reactions to the Snyders’ good news, if that news was shared. As Lynne pulled away, wiping her face, Eric saw many feelings coursing through her. She appeared so altered and he smiled at himself, how had he missed this that morning or yesterday or…. But a baby’s beginnings occurred far from what even his remarkable eyes could envision. And while this child had probably been conceived at Stanford and Laurie’s, Eric would always carry the memory of this place where that baby had been realized, not by a doctor’s proclamation, but the simple awareness of one human’s love for another. And it wasn’t merely Eric’s affections for his wife; Agatha had brought it to Lynne’s attention before Eric said a single word.
Agatha coughed just beyond the guest room door and Eric smiled. “Come on in.”
Jane’s babbles were detected as Agatha stepped into the room. “Just wanted to give you back your child.” Then Agatha smiled. “I think she needs a new diaper.”
Eric inhaled, then laughed. “Indeed she does. Here, I’ll take her.” He stood, collecting Jane from Agatha’s grasp, then Jane drooped against her father’s shoulder. As soon as he changed her, Eric knew his daughter would be ready for bed. And he wouldn’t need to make any excuses for himself and Lynne to swiftly follow.
“Change her in my room,” Agatha said. “I had Don fix a place for her in there.”
Eric stepped to the door. “Thank you, but are you sure?”
Agatha nodded. “I want a minute with Lynne.”
Eric smiled, then left for the master bedroom, wondering how often Agatha used that firm but loving tone with Stanford Taylor. Probably more than Eric might imagine, he assumed, telling his daughter it was nearly time for sleep.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that Laurie realized something was altered with the Snyders. Their first day back he’d been so glad for their return that all he could do was hold Jane and talk with her parents. Laurie had taken that Monday off from work, wanting time with that family without Stanford milling about. As much as Laurie loved that man, sometimes Stan’s stiffness was a pain in the neck.
On their second day home, as Laurie thought of it, he saw a different fatigue edging Lynne’s demeanor. She walked more slowly, looked weary, but a warm joy blurred those slightly ragged edges. Laurie wondered if that was due to spending so much time with Agatha’s family, whom he had never actually met. When Lynne left the room, usually to change Jane or put her to sleep, Laurie pondered how neither he nor Stanford had even interacted with Agatha’s relatives. But as soon as Lynne returned, Laurie was distracted from his thoughts, for the Lynne Snyder that came back from Queens was definitely not the same woman as before.
Laurie also noted a difference in Eric’s mood, but perhaps that was due to the new series about which he couldn’t stop speaking. Not even Sam’s illness could cast a pall on all the work Eric had lined up for when he returned home. While the subject matter had made Stanford roll his eyes, he had also lit up from Eric’s enthusiasm, mostly shared on Monday evening after Agatha had left for the day. Laurie had been greatly relieved to see Stan so animated and he wanted to share that with the Snyders, how their visit had lifted Stanford’s still lingering malaise. That discontent had been rekindled after the Snyders’ departure, which Laurie had immediately noticed, but not mentioned. And it wasn’t simply due to their houseguests’ absence, or Agatha’s. Laurie had received a letter from Seth and while parts of it had made both Laurie and Stanford laugh out loud, reading between the lines Laurie detected anxiety over which he was utterly helpless.
The men had found hilarious Seth’s observations about the depth of Uncle Mickey’s religious convictions; yes, the Goldsmith home was Kosher, and they went to services every Friday evening. But other than those delineations, Uncle Mickey wasn’t much different than his older sisters when it came to discussing politics or the news in general. The Goldsmith and Feinman families gossiped just as much as Laurie and Seth’s relations, although news from Israel featured heavily in the Floridians’ conversations. And, Seth wrote pointedly, so did updates from Europe, especially concerning anything to do with The Holocaust.
It was then that Laurie had to carefully sift through what Seth didn’t say, discerning an underlying tension that Laurie had assumed might occur. He hadn’t shared this letter with his mother yet, although he needed to. But the last time they spoke, Rose had mentioned that Wilma had gotten a card from Seth, so Laurie wasn’t the only correspondent. Laurie imagined Wilma’s letter had only noted Uncle Mickey and Aunt Sheila’s antics, deftly omitting Sheila’s relatives. Wilma, and of course Rose, had learned all about the Goldsmiths, but many other personalities dwelled in Miami.
Having taken another day off from work, Laurie settled into his usual chair in the living room. He considered how these Jewish clans were similar to Agatha’s relations in Queens. Then he frowned inwardly. He knew far less about those families; Agatha’s husband was Don, they had six children, and her sister was Belle, or perhaps Bella. Then Laurie sighed; was that all he knew about the woman who understood just about everything Laurie held dear? Agatha knew all about Seth and while Uncle Mickey was mostly an unknown, within the next few weeks Agatha would absorb those Floridians because Seth and that clan wouldn’t stay under the table. Laurie would need to speak about them to Stanford and not only after Agatha left for the day or on weekends. Eric and Lynne knew far more about those in Queens than Laurie ever would, which for a few seconds pained him. Then he smiled; for years Eric and Lynne had only each other. High time they had plenty of relatives over whom to fuss.
And who could spoil them; Laurie sensed how much the Snyders meant to Agatha, from how tenderly she treated them. She toted Jane like she was that girl’s grandmother or very dear aunt. She huffed over Eric’s plans for the new series in the same way she clucked when Stanford had a new artist about which he couldn’t stop speaking. And around Lynne, Agatha was another surrogate mother, just how she subtly cared for Stanford, especially over the last few years. Yet with Lynne, Agatha was permitted an even deeper bond for Lynne was a woman. And no one was harder to approach than the man Laurie loved.
Right now Laurie was alone in the living room; Eric was on the phone with Renee and perhaps Sam was well enough to speak. Jane was being given a bath by her mother and auntie, which made Laurie grin. Agatha had returned as Auntie Agatha and a few times Laurie would swear he’d heard Aunt Aggie spoken. Stanford had seemed hesitant about leaving that morning, although only Laurie and probably Agatha had seen through his gruff bearing. He’d lingered in the kitchen far longer than he would have if it had only been the three of them. But now another trio made it sextet and that night for dinner, Agatha was frying chicken. It was one of her specialties, but she rarely made it for only the men, too much work being her excuse. That evening, with Lynne’s assistance, there would be chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and probably pie. Eric’s face looked slightly rounded, Laurie had thought yesterday. How many divine dishes had that man sampled while Laurie and Stanford made do with Chinese takeout and mediocre pizza?
Laurie laughed to himself, then was joined by a rather jovial looking painter. Eric’s grin was honest, which pleased Laurie. “So is Sam improving?” Laurie asked, getting to his feet, meeting Eric in the middle of the room.
“He is, although to hear Renee tell it, Sam has weeks of convalescence remaining. I was surprised she was there,” Eric continued. “But I guess she’s going back to work tomorrow. Sam said Marek is stopping by this afternoon, guess she wanted to keep tabs on that conversation.”
“Well, Renee knows how to talk.” Laurie smiled, then chuckled. “Love to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.”
“Me too.” Eric’s smile flickered, then he sighed. “But at least Sam’s better. From what he wrote me, I had to wonder just how sick he’d been.” Eric looked at the floor, then around the room. Laurie felt a purpose within that break of eye contact, for when Eric met Laurie’s gaze, an issue rested in Eric’s eyes.
Since the Snyders’ arrival, or maybe a few days into their stay, Laurie had felt blessed not only with their presence, but for the opportunity to better get to know an artist who to Laurie possessed a most keen sense of vision. Maybe because Eric was one of Stan’s clients, it had taken Laurie longer to truly appreciate Eric’s viewpoint, or maybe that vision was so deep it would take anyone a long while to understand the breadth of how Eric saw the world. Or had the sketches Eric made in Queens truly opened Laurie’s eyes?
Those drawings, made in relative haste, provided Laurie with an unique window into a world he knew nothing of, even if the main subject was within his realm almost more often than she dwelled in her own domain. Stanford had examined the drawings with the mind of a dealer, which had gladdened Laurie’s heart. But Laurie studied them as an art lover, also wishing to better understand a culture with which he had almost no experience. The pictures displayed more than subjects, but then if Eric had asked to sketch Laurie’s family, another vista of Americana would have been revealed. Maybe Laurie should drop a hint when they went to Aunt Wilma’s on Thursday. Then he smiled; his mother would never forgive him if Eric drew the chocolate cake and not Rose’s coconut. It was bad enough that they were going to visit Wilma. But maybe Lynne might ask for the recipe; how would Wilma dare to give it to Lynne if she wouldn’t even share it with Laurie’s mother?
Now Laurie laughed, gazing at Eric, who also wore a smile. Laurie forgot all about that baking rivalry, Agatha’s family, even Seth. For within Eric’s grin a better joy reigned, one that Laurie had never felt personally, but it seemed so familiar as if something Laurie had once considered. Then he felt a giddy thrill, recalling how green around the gills Lynne had looked that morning, how she drank no coffee, only sipping juice while Agatha plied her with toast and plain oatmeal, Agatha’s tone especially soothing. Was Lynne expecting a….
Laurie almost asked, but stopped himself. It had taken the Snyders a long time to have Jane, for reasons beyond Laurie’s knowledge. If Lynne was pregnant, it wasn’t for Laurie to indicate. But Eric’s laughter, ringing through the staid living room, seemed to broach such wonderful news. Then Eric patted Laurie’s shoulder. “So Laurie, shall I tell you now or wait for Stan to come home?”
Laurie’s lip trembled and he felt weak in the knees. When he learned the Snyders were expecting Jane, he’d been distracted by Lynne’s portraits, those nudes some of the most beautiful pieces of artwork Laurie had ever seen. Actually, he’d been staring at Lynne’s breasts, the differing hues catching his attention. Eric’s sense of color was so perfect, those altered shades had caught Laurie off guard. Laurie wished to again peruse the sketches done in Queens; even though they were made in pencil, he was certain that Eric had captured Lynne in a manner which to a more discerning eye would reveal that yes, this couple was expecting their second child.
“Tell me now,” Laurie said quietly. “I’ll tell Stan tonight, if Lynne can keep it under wraps.”
Eric smiled. “We wondered how he’d take the news, I mean, you know what I mean.”
Laurie chuckled as a special joy coursed all through him. “So Eric, is Lynne expecting….”
But to say those words wasn’t Laurie’s task and Eric laughed heartily. “Are you ready to be an uncle again?”
“Oh indeed I am!” Laurie hugged Eric, slapping his back in the process. As their embrace ended, Laurie blinked away tears. “Did you know before you went to Queens?”
“No, and it’s early days.” For a few seconds, Eric looked somber. But his happiness couldn’t be hidden. “She was feeling crummy in the mornings for much of last week. I think we both wondered, but didn’t wanna say anything. Actually, Agatha brought it up with Lynne. I guess I wanted to tell you so you didn’t think Lynne was under the weather.”
“Well, what she has certainly isn’t contagious.” Laurie’s heart felt bursting with familial joy, which he hadn’t experienced since Jane’s arrival. There was a difference in this pleasure from what Laurie shared with Stanford. That was solely between the men, rarely shared with anyone else. This news was just what Laurie needed, although he understood Eric’s slight hesitation. Until Lynne was further along, anything could happen. But Laurie felt this baby’s existence had begun under very good auspices. Then he nearly blushed; had the Snyders been expecting before they arrived or had this baby been conceived….
He wouldn’t ask, yet when he and Stan were alone…. Then Laurie laughed aloud, gripping Eric’s hand and shaking it. “Oh, what fantastic news. My goodness, how did the Aherns take it?”
Eric’s smile faded. “I didn’t tell them. We’ll wait until we get home.”
Laurie released Eric’s hand. “Is Sam really okay?”
“He is. It’s just that, well, it’s a little delicate, you know.”
Laurie nodded. “I suppose it is. You think they’ll, I mean….” Suddenly Laurie felt a chill. During the first half of their stay the Snyders had said little about the Aherns. And other than talking about Sam’s health, nothing had been stated about them yesterday. “How’re they doing?”
Again Eric glanced around the room, taking his time meeting Laurie’s gaze. Eric took a deep breath and as he let it out, Laurie felt a weight upon Eric’s shoulders similar to the one Laurie couldn’t shake from his own. Eric motioned to the sofa and Laurie followed. In low tones, Eric spoke his heart, which at first saddened Laurie for the pain still suffered by both Sam and especially Renee. Then as Eric finished speaking, Laurie began to talk about Seth. By the time Lynne, Agatha, and Jane entered the living room, many truths had been shared. Yet, the burdens didn’t seem as heavy now. Perhaps even though both Laurie and Eric carried weights, that dual anguish was lightened just by another’s knowledge.
Then as Laurie stood, a more lasting delight resounded; now Laurie understood the weary but wonderful bliss that dogged Lynne’s steps. He nearly jumped from the sofa and she began to laugh, then cry, as he reached her, grabbing her in a bear hug. He glanced at Agatha, her smile broad. Jane giggled like she comprehended the news, which Laurie though boded well. Very soon Miss Jane wouldn’t be the star of the show.
“Congratulations,” Laurie said softly, aware that for as good as this announcement was, it was still very new. He let Lynne pull away, but he couldn’t help but remain close to her. He even stroked her cheek, where tears ran, feeling a most proprietary notion within him. But it was as if Lynne was his younger sister, or maybe she was filling the hole Seth had left within Laurie’s heart. Only then did Laurie allow how large and debilitating was that space. But now it was being replenished and again he hugged Lynne, telling her in a soft whisper how happy he was and how thrilled Stanford would be.
That made Lynne laugh as she stepped back, now wiping copious tears from her face. “Will he really?” she murmured.
Laurie nodded. “Oh yeah, once he gets over the total embarrassment.”
“Stanford?” both Eric and Agatha said in unison.
Laurie roared in laughter. “The one and only. I’ll tell him this evening after we’ve had our nightcaps, or we gentlemen have imbibed. He’ll be out the door tomorrow morning before Lynne gets out of bed.”
“But will she get to see him for the rest of the trip?” Eric’s tone was teasing.
“Oh she will,” Laurie chuckled. “And I can’t wait to watch him squirm.”
“Now you all be kind to Stanford,” Agatha chided, then giggled. She tickled Jane’s chin, then kissed the baby’s cheek. “He’ll take a day or two to warm up but once he does….”
“Once he does, be prepared Lynne. He might even give you an impromptu hug.” Laurie considered how Stanford would respond when told. Then Laurie smiled. “I bet by tomorrow night he’ll be over it, or he’ll put on a good show. But either way, just know that both of us are thrilled to bits. Too bad we can’t tell Mom and Aunt Wilma yet, but that’ll come in good time.” Laurie chuckled, then had a soft sigh. The Aherns were still in the dark and the reason for that had to have crossed Lynne’s mind more than once. And for all Agatha knew about this little family, Laurie doubted that she had been informed about Sam and Renee. Then Laurie smiled. “What about your Polish pastor,” he asked Eric. “He’ll be pleased as punch I assume.”
“I’m sure Marek will be just as thrilled as you. He’ll have one more person to speak Polish with,” Eric laughed.
“Oh, I imagine he feels the same as me about Jane, she’s got more uncles than she knows what to do with.”
“And a few aunties too,” Agatha added with a grin.
“Yes, a few aunties.” Laurie reached out for Jane, who immediately went to his grasp. She giggled in his arms, then babbled as if knowing all that had been spoken around her. Laurie’s heart again felt filled, that cavernous space no longer drafty. It was warmed from deep inside, which lifted him, then felt like a warning. He ignored what the future held, instead focusing on the beauty of that moment. Then he smiled. “So does this mean you’ll need a hand tonight making dinner?”
Lynne giggled. “Indeed it might. I’m feeling good now, should probably start the pie. Then when Jane naps, I might join her.”
“I think that’s a very good idea.” Agatha cleared her throat. “In fact, these men can watch Jane.” She looked at Eric, then to Laurie. “If you need us, we’ll be in the kitchen. Lunch will be ready in forty-five minutes.”
Lynne stifled another giggle, but Laurie didn’t hide his. “Yes ma’am!”
Agatha smirked, then led Lynne from the room. When they were gone, Laurie smiled. “Goodness gracious, how did you last for a week in Queens?”
Eric laughed. “Oh, it was easy. I just sat and drew while the women did all the work.”
Laurie nodded. “I bet that’s how it went. Speaking of those drawings, you mind if I have another look at them?”
Eric’s gaze was curious, then he grinned. “Of course not. I’ll be right back.”
“Take them to the dining room, then I can spread them over the table.”
“Won’t Agatha want us to eat lunch in there?”
“Oh, we can use the kitchen. Cozier in there anyways.”
Eric smiled, then exited the room. Laurie looked at the walls, tastefully appointed with various pieces from Stanford and Laurie’s clients, definitely the haunt of two art dealers. Might another Snyder infant cause them to alter the décor, to baby-proof even? Laurie smiled, then kissed Jane’s forehead. “I love you, you know. And I’m gonna adore who’s coming next.” His voice was soft and Jane smiled. Then she nestled against his shoulder, making Laurie’s eyes water. He toted her into the dining room where her father was waiting, pictures in a stack on the large oak table. But Laurie didn’t hand Jane to her father; he sat near the sketches, then removed the top one, placing it in front of himself. It was of Lynne and Agatha and her sister; was it Belle or Bella? Laurie wouldn’t inquire, it wasn’t overly important, and Eric would probably tell him in a matter of minutes. Instead Laurie concentrated on the women’s faces, how Agatha and her sister seemed ageless. And he noticed the distinct happiness upon Lynne, not only her face but her entire being seemed alight. If Eric hadn’t consciously known she was expecting, somehow his spectacular vision had seen it, for this impression of Lynne was teeming with…. With love, Laurie inhaled, then exhaled, as Jane still sagged against his shoulder. Yet Laurie wasn’t jealous, although he would never share that sort of bond with Stanford. How could Laurie rue what the Snyders had achieved when through that loving action Laurie’s heart was being put back together?
He said nothing about that, but admired the next sketch, Agatha and her husband with some of their children. Not all six, Laurie smiled, nor were they little. In Eric’s skillful strokes, Laurie noted the resemblances, and how Agatha’s bearing was altered from the previous drawing. Here she looked very much like a mother, nothing like the cook and housekeeper he’d always known her as and again Laurie was struck by Eric ability to change viewpoints. Never again would Laurie view Agatha as merely his and Stanford’s employee, not that he considered her as hired help. But here she was, in a simple pencil drawing, so lively and warm and…. Laurie gazed at Eric, who was studying the next drawing on the stack. A genius stood only feet away from where Laurie sat, making Laurie shiver. That quaking stirred Jane, who had fallen asleep on Laurie’s shoulder. He patted her back, telling her he loved her, and that he was sorry for waking her. Jane responded by yawning, then setting her head right back where it had been.
Now Eric met Laurie’s gaze and for one moment, Laurie felt to have seen through Eric’s eyes, but it wasn’t about appreciating sketches or one’s offspring. It was a heavy albeit manageable calling that coalesced in art, but was born of something beyond Laurie’s comprehension. Yet it was so tantalizingly close that Laurie ached to get up from his chair, stand beside Eric, then grip his right hand. Within that right arm Eric owned a tremendous gift, but the cost was…. Maybe it wasn’t the cost, but the impetus, the trade-off, the sacrifice…. The reason for that gift was something so extraordinary, so maddeningly right past where Laurie could grasp, all he could do was slump back gently, not wishing to again stir Jane. Then Laurie sighed, but not in frustration. It was in a small piece of understanding, maybe compensatory in nature. He might never know how or why Eric’s talent was so great, but finally Laurie could measure the satisfaction in fathering a child. Not that he ever would, nor did he feel to have lost an opportunity. But how often had Stanford wondered why men and women were attracted to each other, and how many times had Laurie attempted to explain it. The meaning sat across Laurie’s shoulder, if not perhaps in one of that affection’s most basic forms. It was why the Snyders were expecting another child, which would embarrass Stanford when Laurie noted the couple had probably made that baby right in that very apartment. It had to do with what a man and woman could fashion whether they were artists or art dealers, cooks or nurses, pastors or even priests. It was human nature to want to leave something behind.
Laurie wasn’t sure what his legacy would be, other than promoting great art, which was the same as Stanford’s. Eric’s was twofold, but Laurie felt the little girl softly snoring over his shoulder was the greater bequest, even if her father was the most talented painter Laurie had ever known. Yet if Jane and her impending sibling were Eric’s most prized treasures, how did he balance such gifts, not to mention his love for Lynne, so evident in these drawings. There was something, Laurie permitted, then he allowed that perhaps that mystery would never be solved as Eric set another sketch in front of him. Girls were jumping rope, their limbs fluid on the paper. Laurie looked at Eric, who wore a Cheshire cat sort of grin. Then Eric quickly looked away, as if not wishing for Laurie to learn his deepest secret.
Laurie shivered; that secret was something so fantastic that to deduce it would forever alter their relationship. It was akin to whatever Seth suffered, Laurie then acknowledged, although thank God Eric could use his gift for the greater good.
Then Laurie closed his eyes, offering a prayer for his cousin. Eric had survived his horrible childhood and if there was any way Seth could return from Florida somewhat healed…. When Laurie opened his eyes, he found Eric seated across from him, his eyes also closed. Maybe they had asked for the same thing, Laurie mused, or perhaps Eric was merely giving thanks for another child. Laurie didn’t speak, but when Eric opened his eyes, giving Laurie a peaceful smile, Laurie nodded, then went back to the safety of Eric’s drawing as if nothing was more complicated than a neighborhood in Queens, New York.
That evening Lynne maintained the façade of a mother of one, even though Agatha and Laurie often caught themselves chuckling together. Laurie was amazed at how easily Eric kept the secret, but he didn’t dwell on that painter’s ability to shield the truth. Laurie simply enjoyed knowing what Stanford didn’t until the men snuggled under their covers. Then Laurie started to imply that he knew something, withholding the facts until Stanford practically begged for the information. As soon as Laurie stopped speaking, Stanford gasped, then sighed. For a moment Laurie wondered if he had strung out his lover too far. Then Stan began to smile, then chortle. He stopped himself before a belly laugh could emerge, in part Laurie realized, that Stanford was trying to ascertain how far along was Lynne. Then Stanford cleared his throat, asking Laurie that very question, albeit it in a circuitous manner. Laurie was blunt, trying to keep his voice even. Yet he wanted to scream in laughter, for as soon as the words hit Stanford, he leaned away from Laurie, flopping into the center of the bed. Laurie restrained himself from full-on hilarity, but did manage to soothe Stanford’s mind, that if nothing else it was probably the last baby to be conceived within their home.
Both Laurie and Stanford had to work on Wednesday and as all had guessed, Stanford made an early exit. Lynne slept late, waking even after Laurie had left, but the Snyders were spending that day with Stanford’s father, who didn’t inquire about the dark circles under Lynne’s eyes. Michael was too enchanted with Jane, who flirted shamelessly as the foursome walked through Central Park on a rather warm spring day. They had lunch at Michael’s home, where he apologized for not having hosted them overnight during their stay. Eric noted how glad they were that Jane was mostly good humored what with all this bustling about. Then Michael smiled, recalling that the trio still had one more trek to make tomorrow to Brooklyn. Michael’s eyes twinkled, which made Eric and Lynne chuckle. But the Snyders were unaware of Michael’s exact meaning. Even he knew of the friction between Wilma, Rose, and a certain chocolate cake.
The Snyders left Michael with the relief that they hadn’t needed to explain Lynne’s fatigue. They arrived back at Stanford and Laurie’s, where promptly Lynne went to nap. Jane was harder to convince, but finally she too fell asleep. That left Eric with some free time, during which he sketched Agatha in the kitchen, at her insistence. Then she smiled slyly; she hoped that sometime before Eric left he could get Stanford and Laurie to pose.
Eric admitted he wished for the same and Agatha laughed. “Leave this out for them. Stanford will ask about it and you can explain. Or if he asks while I’m here, I’ll just tell him you got bored and pestered me.”
“He might ask, better to talk art than about Lynne.” Eric smiled, then gazed at the drawing. Agatha looked little like her Queens’ counterpart, her bearing so formal. Also motherly, but from a distance. Yet he’d sensed no difference in how she treated them, why had he depicted her reserve within the sketch? Maybe only to cause Stanford to pay attention, or maybe…. Maybe it was Agatha to purposely make the differentiation. Eric studied her, that uniform not all that dissimilar to what she’d worn last week at home. Skirts and buttoned-up blouses, although her shoes had been brown, not black, her hose the same. She had often donned an apron, but it wasn’t white, usually brightly colored. Here she seemed regal, where in Queens, while in charge, she wasn’t so stiff. Then Eric shook his head. Stiff wasn’t the word. Here in this apartment she was….
The boss, and Eric wanted to chuckle. In Queens, while Donald was a quiet man, he was clearly the head of the family, no matter how loudly Agatha might bark. Within this household, although she was an employee, she was also the chief cook and bottle washer, what Sam would say, but there was nothing demeaning about that role. Without Agatha, Stan and Laurie’s world would no longer hold together.
Did the men realize that, Eric wondered. He gazed at Agatha, who wore a knowing smile. She certainly did and now he laughed out loud. Yet, Agatha wouldn’t press Stanford to pose for his client. She simply had permitted Eric to sketch her in a manner that outwardly presumed her place within this residence as that of a domestic. Now Eric felt subdued; it would take this subtle yet powerful woman to get Stanford to let down his guard, for other than Laurie and Michael, only Agatha Morris had fully permeated Stanford Taylor’s thick wall.
When it came to the art dealer, Eric didn’t discount where he, Lynne, Jane and of course the coming baby stood. They had all crawled under Stanford’s skin, much to his chagrin. But Stanford still was wary around them, why he’d left for work so early that morning. Eric wasn’t bothered, only intrigued. He couldn’t wait to see how Stanford approached any of them when he came home, not to mention how he behaved tomorrow in Brooklyn.
Yet, Eric could almost predict how that trip would proceed. The taxi ride would be a chatty affair, although Stanford would offer little discourse. Once at Wilma’s, Stanford would deftly lead Eric into a quiet corner where they would talk about work. On the way home, Stanford would continue that discussion while Lynne and Laurie recounted all sorts of Gordon gossip. Seth wouldn’t predominate that conversation, Eric smiled. It would center on a bevy of women not all that dissimilar from the ladies in Queens.
“Are you looking forward to tomorrow?” Agatha asked.
Eric laughed. “Was just thinking about that trip, and yup, I am. Will probably talk a lot of shop with my dealer.”
Agatha turned to face Eric, a smile on her face. “Indeed you will.” She returned to stirring the pot of soup on the stove. “I wonder what Mrs. Gordon will make, for dessert, you know.”
“Well, if it’s anything like that coconut cake Laurie’s mother baked, good grief. I’ve put on ten pounds during this vacation.”
Agatha had a gentle laugh. “Sometimes Laurie brings home slices of a rather delicious chocolate cake. Maybe she’ll fix that for you folks.”
“Well if she does, I’ll let you know. Should we try to finagle one for you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. There’s still half a sweet potato pie from yesterday.”
Eric nodded. “Yeah, I can’t wait to see what Marek thinks of that creation. He adores Lynne’s pumpkin, but I think sweet potato might become his new favorite.”
Agatha turned around, a warm grin on her face. “You do let me know what he thinks of it. I am curious.”
“I’ll do that and while I’m not a betting man, I wouldn’t be surprised if you received a thank-you note from him.”
Agatha chuckled. “You just tell me what sort of sweet Mrs. Gordon fixes for you all and I’ll let you know if I hear from your pastor.”
“Agreed,” Eric smiled, sipping his coffee.
That night Stanford gave Eric and Lynne his congratulations, but it wasn’t until nearly the close of the evening when he allowed himself to fully express his excitement, which was still hedged in what Eric felt was disbelief. The Snyders discussed it briefly before Lynne fell asleep. Maybe Stanford never imagined any sort of procreation could take place within his home.
On Thursday morning, there was nowhere for Stanford to escape; he, Laurie, and the Snyders would eat lunch in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be back until late, what Stanford assumed. Agatha wasn’t staying in Manhattan all day; she would leave as soon as the rest had departed. If anyone was hungry later, leftovers remained in the refrigerator. Stanford would let Laurie and Eric manage the reheating.
As for Lynne…. Stanford wanted to give her the appropriate compliments, yet he felt somewhat strangled. He wished to speak to Dr. Walsh about it, but truthfully, what would he say to his shrink? Yes, Stanford felt quite awkward that Eric and Lynne had probably gotten pregnant there in Manhattan, that was certainly more information than Stanford had needed. But what business was it of his, in that they were adults and this sort of thing happened between men and women and…. And there was where Stanford wished to wriggle from his skin, which then angered him. What difference did it make, and how many nude paintings of Lynne had Stanford admired, and of course the Snyders had wanted to add to their family and…. And he so badly wished to walk to Lynne, grasp her hand, look her in the eyes and tell her how pleased he was for her. And Stanford was pleased; Lynne was a wonderful mother, she made Eric very happy. So then why was he being so damn reticent about sharing in their joy?
He had considered it at work yesterday, finding himself alternately wanting to tell Miss Harold, then recoiling at sharing such intimate news with his secretary. Emily knew the Snyders were still in New York, yet as far as she understood, Stanford was merely allowing them to stay at his home as if they were too poor to get a hotel. But of course Emily knew that wasn’t at all the case, yet she never inquired why the Snyders had chosen such a lengthy sojourn east, nor the reason the couple was still at Stanford’s. But it wasn’t only a couple; there was Jane, and now another baby, and Stanford looked over at Laurie, sitting across from him at the kitchen table, it was only them and Agatha at the moment. Jane’s empty high chair waited in the far corner, the Snyders were still sleeping. Or maybe Eric was getting up with Jane, allowing his wife to rest. Stanford glanced at the clock; it was nearly a quarter after seven. Wasn’t Jane hungry, he wondered.
Yet Agatha said nothing and Laurie was quiet. The Snyders’ news had brought peace to Laurie’s mind, for which Stanford was grateful. And of course Agatha was thrilled. Michael wasn’t yet aware, but when he learned, and then Stanford shuddered. Now he knew why he was so flustered, and he felt even more unease, although it wasn’t connected to Lynne. Stanford stared at Laurie until he made eye contact. All Stanford had to do was stand from his chair. Laurie did the same, neither saying a word to Agatha.
At first Stanford nearly blurted his reservations just beyond the closed kitchen door. Then he paused, motioning for Laurie to follow him to their bedroom. But that was too close to where the Snyders still rested. With a huff, Stanford led his partner into the library, shutting the door behind them.
Stanford never came into this room alone. The figurines were the reason, but he ignored them, instead considering how last night the foursome hadn’t shared their usual nightcaps. Lynne had been exhausted and it had been easy for Laurie to insist that Eric escort his wife to bed. Eric returned with Jane, but Stanford had excused himself, leaving Laurie to entertain. When Laurie came to bed, Stanford pretended to be asleep, although Laurie hadn’t permitted that ruse to last. With few words they had made love, then Stanford laid awake for a good hour while listening to Laurie’s drones. Now he faced that man, who wore a thoughtful gaze.
“Do you wanna talk about this?” Laurie said quietly.
Did Laurie realize the reason, Stanford wondered. The incident, as Stanford now termed it, had happened early in their relationship, maybe Laurie had forgotten. Stanford cleared his throat, then nodded. “You shouldn’t have told me yet.”
Not this soon, Stanford immediately wished to add, but as soon as he’d spoken, Laurie nodded, then looked at the floor. Then Laurie met Stanford’s gaze. “I’m sorry, oh Stan, I didn’t even think about….”
Stanford nodded, for he never considered the miscarriage that his sister Louise had suffered many years ago. She and Herb had only been married for a few months and they hadn’t been able to keep the news to themselves. Michael and Constance had been thrilled for their first grandchild, also the first for Herb’s parents. Louise had been in fairly good health, but those details had been set far back into Stanford’s memories; Louise lost her baby with no explanations forthcoming.
Yet, what equally bothered Stanford was how little he had cared at the time. He recalled sitting with his father, although Laurie hadn’t accompanied. This news had only been for Stanford, who had taken it without much more than a slight nod, then a sigh. Then he’d offered some pithy sentiments, leaving his father for home, where he’d told Laurie in a similar fashion. Stanford couldn’t even remember, the information having made such a small impression. The next time he saw Louise he had embraced her, and probably awkwardly he now mused, also giving to her the same half-hearted apologies. Well over a year later, she gave birth to a son, then subsequently had two daughters. Stanford had attended few of their various activities, but his nephew Robert was in high school and Stanford would probably go to his graduation.
Whether or not Laurie joined him was irrelevant. Stanford barely knew his nephew, or his nieces, any of them. He never sent them birthday cards, nor did he receive any, other than those from his sisters. Not that Laurie was especially close to his nieces and nephews, but often Laurie trekked to Brooklyn for this or that activity. Not for any of the Gordon women of course, just his three sisters, to whom he was quite close. All three would be at the Gordon home today, making for a clucking group of hens. Then Stanford shivered. Were Eric and Lynne planning to share their news?
“It’s all right,” Stanford said, stepping toward Laurie. Laurie grasped Stanford’s hands, then Stanford sighed. “They’re not going to say anything today, are they?”
“No, I can’t imagine they would. My God Stan, I feel so dumb. I didn’t even think about Louise and Herb.”
Stanford sighed again. “Neither did I until just this morning.”
As Stanford spoke, that odd heaviness was lifted from his shoulders. Now he trembled and Laurie’s grip increased. Then Laurie led Stanford to the sofa and Stanford was grateful, for his legs wobbled beneath him. Suddenly a warm joy bubbled in Stanford’s chest, yet slight guilt still lurked within him. He did care more about Lynne than any of his sisters, but maybe that wasn’t overly surprising. Who Stanford had been years ago wasn’t anything like the person he was now.
Most of that was due to the man beside him; how much had loving Laurie changed Stanford? Yet, not all those alterations were Laurie’s doing, and again Stanford felt awkward. But he didn’t need to explain that to Laurie; he’d already pointed it out, and rather plainly, months before. Eric, Lynne, and Jane mattered to Stanford, and now one other would be thrown into that mix, or hopefully that baby would arrive safely. Stanford closed his eyes, offering a random prayer similar to the one he’d said during the Missile Crisis. When he opened his eyes, Laurie’s were misty. “What?” Stanford said abruptly. “Is there something wrong?”
Laurie nodded, making Stanford sick to his stomach. But quickly that nausea passed, although Stanford’s heart did feel twisted. Laurie noted that while Eric and Lynne had no plans to tell anyone in Brooklyn, they had yet to inform the Aherns. As Laurie explained why, Stanford stood, no longer feeling weakened. He walked to the where the figurines stood, then stared at the woman. For the first time, Stanford didn’t see Lynne as that statue. It was Renee Ahern pleading with God.
That night, Stanford held Jane while the other adults fixed the evening meal. Jane was fussy, but Stanford wasn’t bothered. He found Eric often glancing his way as if checking on the dealer, but Stanford would shake his head, then place the whiny baby over his other shoulder. Jane quieted, maybe due to Stanford’s newfound role. Then just as he felt competent, she started to fret. He clucked to himself, then walked from the kitchen, but didn’t relinquish the infant in his care.
Jane still grumbled, but Stanford bobbed her up and down, thinking about all that had occurred at Wilma’s. Now Eric and Lynne understood the great cake war, as Eric had termed it in the taxi coming home. Both Stanford and Laurie were surprised at how Eric had been forewarned by Agatha, although her caution had been mild, or at least Eric hadn’t been prepared for all that one recipe meant within Laurie’s family. Now Stanford smiled; Agatha could be sneaky and he wondered what Eric might tell her tomorrow. Stanford had a full agenda at the office, but what he would give to hear that conversation.
Maybe Agatha would get to work early, or Jane would rouse her father from bed before Stanford left. He chuckled, which made Jane stop crying. He stared at her, those blue eyes looking drowsy, but still the same hue as Sam Ahern’s. Stanford felt a chill considering that man, but Jane’s small grin eased Stanford’s heart. “There’s so much in this world you have no idea about,” Stanford said. “I wonder if that’s better than what we all know.”
Jane blinked, but didn’t fuss. Then she yawned, laying her head on Stanford’s shoulder. He walked slowly, then saw Eric head his way. Now Stanford smiled, even with Eric’s sly grin. The art dealer had talked plenty of shop with his client, but Stanford had also given Lynne a strong hug upon their return from Brooklyn. He would never tell either Snyder about Louise’s loss, but maybe one day Stanford might find a way to apologize to his sister. Or maybe, Stanford mused, the past didn’t matter anymore.
“Is it time to eat?” Stanford asked. “Or are you here to relieve me?”
“It’s just about dinnertime,” Eric said. “And I can take the girl if you want.”
“It’s all right, she seems placated.” Stanford felt a deep truth uttered in that statement. Then he sighed. “Eric, I am very happy for you and Lynne.”
Eric chuckled, then took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. “It was hard not saying anything to Rose and Wilma today. But Laurie can tell them in another couple of months. In the meantime, they can battle it out over that cake recipe.” Then Eric laughed. “I can’t wait to talk to Agatha in the morning.”
Stanford grinned. “Yes, there is that bone of contention. The recipe will probably go with Wilma to her grave.”
Eric nodded. “Somehow I don’t see her passing it to her daughters. Maybe she could be persuaded to give it to Agatha though, for your and Laurie’s benefit.”
Now Stanford laughed, but softly, as not to wake the baby. Then he cleared his throat. “Eric, Laurie told me about the Aherns.” Stanford paused; there was much attached to that subject, but little else for Stanford to say.
“I thought he might. Not much Lynne and I can do about it, and to be honest, I’m not looking forward to how they’ll take the news.”
Stanford nodded. “I suppose you’ll tell them when you get home.”
“Yeah, after Lynne sees her doctor. Stan, I do apologize, I mean….” Eric’s tone grew somber. “It’s still very early, I mean, well….”
As Stanford reached for Eric’s hand, Jane stirred. But Eric completed the action, gripping Stanford’s outstretched hand. Then Eric released Stanford, but he didn’t step away. “It’ll be whatever it’s supposed to be,” Eric said. He caught Stanford’s gaze, then motioned toward the kitchen. “I think Laurie wants to eat in there. He was setting the table when I left.”
Stanford nodded, wondering if Eric could read minds. Somehow Stanford felt that Eric knew about Louise’s loss, maybe Eric even understood how long it had taken Stanford to put two and two together. Or maybe Stanford permitted him too much knowledge. Yet, in how Eric nodded at him, perhaps that man was psychic as well as a brilliant painter.
But even with such gifts, Eric’s hands were still tied. Following Eric to the kitchen, Stanford wondered how Sam and Renee would react to the Snyders’ news. As Eric took Jane from Stanford’s shoulder, Stanford smiled at Lynne, already seated at the table. Laurie was serving, and Stanford sat beside a tired but happy woman. As Lynne took a deep breath, Stanford squeezed her hand. She laughed as she exhaled, stirring within Stanford a welcome peace. These people were now part of him and one more was on the way.
On Friday morning Lynne woke alone, Eric’s side of the bed cool. She smiled, then grimaced, as nausea rolled through her. Then she giggled. This time, very little was unknown about pregnancy.
She got out of bed, put on her robe, then padded to the guest bathroom. The days had been so busy since Agatha asked if she was all right; how quickly had their last week of vacation gone, Lynne mused, as she didn’t throw up, but certainly felt unwell. And how differently was this confinement starting, in so many manners. She did wonder if she was carrying a boy for how rapidly she had fallen ill, or maybe her subconscious had been a powerful factor when Jane was in this state. Back then Lynne had never fathomed becoming pregnant. That concrete likelihood now altered a mother’s psyche as well as her body.
Lynne was eager to call Dr. Salters when they got home, but Lynne wasn’t at all excited about telling the Aherns. However, that anxiety was swept aside when she thought of informing Marek and Frannie. Then Lynne sighed, for how would Sam and Renee take this news? Then Lynne shuddered as she stepped from the bathroom, staring at the space where she and Eric had most likely conceived their second child. Never before had Lynne considered the Aherns as Sam and Renee. A wave of tears fell from Lynne’s eyes, hormones she permitted, alongside the sorrow of having lost contact with her best friend.
Lynne joined those in the kitchen; Stanford was gone as Lynne had imagined, but Laurie loitered, and he hugged her warmly, then offered his goodbye. Lynne smiled, pleased that he had waited for her, but while they shared a strong bond, it wasn’t the same as what she had known with Renee. Then Lynne gazed at Agatha; even that woman couldn’t take Renee’s place. As Agatha brought juice to Lynne, Lynne smiled widely. Agatha gripped her shoulder, then gently brushed stray hairs from Lynne’s face. Agatha was like a mother, for which Lynne was grateful.
Eric was tending to Jane, who seemed wholly unaware of all the changes. She seemed at home in this Manhattan apartment among those who adored her. Would Jane find urban life her calling? It had been where her parents were raised, different cities of course, but similar settings, then Lynne frowned. Eric had grown up in poverty, Lynne’s parents upper middle class. Jane would never want for anything, but she seemed flexible, then Lynne laughed. Jane was thirteen months old, she wouldn’t even be two when a sibling arrived. Tears again fell down Lynne’s cheeks and she glanced at her husband. Another baby was coming and how fantastic was that blessing.
As Lynne wiped her face, Eric assisted, smiling as he did so. Then he grasped her hand, such affection passed through his fingers. They hadn’t spoken about the baby much, but tender love had been made, and Lynne was ready to be within her own domain, although having meals fixed was a treat. Agatha set a plate of pancakes in front of Lynne and Eric released his wife’s hand. Then to Lynne’s joy, Agatha took a seat on Jane’s other side, like she was that girl’s grandmother. Then Lynne began to cry in earnest; how had she and Eric inherited all these relatives?
Only Jane noticed her mother’s tears and the little girl began to squawk. “Now you leave your mama alone,” Agatha said. “Gonna be more of that before it’s all over.”
“Indeed,” Lynne laughed, wiping her face. She took a deep breath, then exhaled, shaking her head. “Poor girl’s not gonna know which end’s up.”
“She’ll make do.” Agatha smiled, then motioned to Lynne’s breakfast. “But you eat before it gets cold.”
Now Eric chuckled while Lynne smiled, forking herself a bite of the delicious pancakes. Even the coffee smelled good, but she stuck to juice, as Agatha told Jane that she was going to have to share her mother. Lynne closed her eyes, again inhaling deeply. These warm moments would be pulled up to buffer the solitary times that were waiting for her at home.
Mother and daughter took a bath, then the Snyders went for a walk. Eric said that Stanford had finally mentioned the sketch of Agatha in uniform, the dealer trying to remain detached, but Stanford was clearly puzzled. Keeping his own voice flat, Eric said it had been Agatha’s idea. This had been before Laurie joined them and while Agatha had stepped away from the kitchen. Then Lynne asked how early father and daughter had been up. Eric smiled. “She was awake at six, but just laid in her bed, making little noises. At seven, we got up. I needed the coffee.”
Lynne nodded, then gazed at the busy traffic. They could have gone into the park, but this wasn’t meant to be a long outing. Laurie was coming home for lunch, with only one appointment left for his day. “Has Laurie said anything about the sketch?” Lynne asked her husband.
“He doesn’t need to. Stan’s the one who needs convincing.”
“Do you think he’ll say yes?”
Eric shrugged. “I think he’d like to, but….” Eric pulled the stroller next to a building, allowing passersby to get around them. “He’s had a lot to take in over the last four weeks.” Then Eric smiled. “I’ll just leave that sketch here, let him mull it over. Unless he says differently,” Eric added. “Truthfully, it could go either way.”
Lynne nodded. “Well, you have plenty to keep you busy when we get home.”
“Oh yes I do.” Eric kissed her, then deftly set his hand on her belly. “If Sam’s up for posing, terrific. If not, I’ve got more work than what time will allow.”
Lynne shivered, but not from the April breeze. Spring in New York had been pleasant, but now she desired their western climate. Or maybe just their property. Eric would use the studio to create his series based on their stay in Queens, but how many paintings would commence in the sunroom, Lynne wondered, while Jane napped in the nursery?
For all the traffic and people in the most bustling metropolis on the planet, right then Lynne felt it was simply her husband, baby, and herself. Eric stood close to her, Jane in the stroller between them. Then a rush of mild nausea made Lynne inhale sharply, also rousing her smile. Tears followed, which stirred her giggle. She hadn’t been so soppy with Jane, but uncertainty had held her back. This time only joy would reign.
She didn’t think about whether or not Stanford would permit Eric to sketch him and Laurie, she didn’t ponder the Aherns. Here she was in New York City with all the family she needed. Eric whispered that sentiment, making his wife laugh. Lynne nodded, then prayed. Then she kissed her husband on the mouth, feeling no shame at all.
As the Snyders shared lunch with Laurie and Agatha, Sam Ahern had breakfast with his father. Joe had started coming over in the mornings while Renee worked half days. The last two nights Joe and Marjorie both had visited, but that evening it would only be Sam and Renee. Sam had told his folks to come over on Saturday night, that maybe Sam might be up to cooking. But he didn’t want his parents there when Renee came home. That day Renee was stopping at the Snyders to check the mail as Ted had a funeral over which to preside and Henry was busy.
Sam had nearly asked his dad to drive to the Snyders’, but then an excuse would need to be concocted, and Sam didn’t have the energy or desire to lie to his parents. For the last two weeks, Ted and Henry had fulfilled Sam’s housesitting duties, leaving Renee free to concentrate on her recovering husband. None of the Aherns had questioned that, but they might have raised eyebrows if Joe had to drive across town when Renee worked only a few minutes from where the Snyders lived. And all Renee had to do was pick up the mail; Ted had checked the plants yesterday, Henry having stopped there the day before that. Sam wondered how Eric would even have time to paint Sam’s portrait what with all the correspondence which had accumulated. Maybe it wouldn’t be until summer that Sam would have to bite that bullet.
But he did feel bad that Renee was standing in for him today, although he said nothing of the sort to his dad. Joe wanted to talk baseball, for which Sam was relieved. The men discussed if Carl Yastrzemski would pick up where Ted Williams had left off, but neither man spoke of their team winning the pennant. A record of seven and six that month wasn’t a bad start, but The Curse of the Bambino had haunted Boston for so long, a winning season was too much to contemplate.
Sam had fixed that morning’s eggs and toast, and his appetite was returning. For the last few nights, his parents had brought dinner, and enough leftovers waited in the refrigerator that all Renee would have to do is reheat their meal on the stove. Then Sam grimaced; he might handle that task, depending on how she was when she came home. But he hadn’t asked her to actually step foot inside the Snyders’ front gate. All she had to do was….
A chill ran up Sam’s back, how long had it been since Renee had even been at Eric’s house? A few months, which made Sam inwardly tremble. He understood his wife’s trepidation, for he’d suffered the same when Eric was gone all those weeks in 1960. Sam shook his head. Then he gazed at his father, who wore a quizzical face. “Something wrong son?” Joe said softly.
Sam sighed, then smiled. “Just thinking about Yastrzemski. Maybe he’ll have a good year.”
Joe chuckled, then sat back in his chair. “Well, he’s got big shoes to fill. Nobody’s as good a hitter as Williams.”
Sam nodded, but considered a few other players with that sort of talent. None of them were Red Sox, he smiled to himself. “Yup, he’s in a class all by himself.”
The conversation continued, even if both men had finished their meals. At ten thirty, Joe made his excuses and Sam walked outside with his dad, the day pleasant. Sam had spent most of the last two weeks indoors, and the sunshine felt good on his face. He took stock of the front yard; Henry had mowed a few days back, the flowerbeds were vibrant. Trees along the street were getting leafy, the scent of new life heady. Sam smiled, he couldn’t help it. He’d felt so miserable and was still a little weak. Whatever had hit him had certainly done its job, but he wondered the purpose of that illness. Maybe to reaffirm familial ties with relatives he didn’t see as much as others. Joanie had come by a few days ago, now assured that Sam wasn’t contagious. Fran had offered, but Sam had said he’d see her soon enough. Better that Helene wasn’t around Renee.
As Joe got into his car, Sam had to concentrate on the clipped green grass, inhaling deeply for any lasting fragrance of Henry’s handiwork. There was none, but Eric would have plenty to do at his place. Sam waved at his father, who had no idea of all that Sam had meant to accomplish; it wasn’t merely about collecting the mail. But Sam hadn’t let Henry or Ted use Eric’s lawnmower, enough that they had kept the indoor plants alive. Eric had specifically told Sam not to worry about that aspect, to just take care of himself. And Sam had done that, yet he fretted. He was feeling better, but Renee’s mood later on was another matter.
At four thirty, Renee said goodnight to Vivian. Vivian wished her a happy weekend and Renee smiled, then quickly offered the same. Then Renee headed to the back office door. The Bel-Air waited and she hurried to the vehicle, wishing to run this errand as fast as possible.
She had been so grateful to Ted and Henry, never wondering if Sam had needed to give any reason other than she was torn between caring for her husband and patients at work. Neither man, when she saw them, had raised their eyebrows at her, so Renee felt her secret was safe. Not even Marek Jagucki had hinted at any possible motive for Sam’s brothers to check on the Snyders’ home. His visit on Tuesday had been most enjoyable, making Renee nearly forget that she had ever confided him in before.
As she drove to the Snyders, Renee mulled over how her appointments with Marek had gone; she had said very little, except at the end. Her choice to discontinue their sessions had never been up for debate; Marek had accepted it with little fanfare, or at least outwardly he had raised no argument. On Tuesday, Renee detected no judgement on his part. Sam had been the pastor’s concern and Renee had stepped away from the conversation a few times, letting the men speak privately. She never later asked Sam about what she had missed, it had simply been a social call, just as Father Markham had then visited yesterday afternoon, offering Sam communion. Maybe that wasn’t as social as Marek’s visit, but priests and pastors ministered to their flocks as was necessary.
Suddenly Renee found herself driving right past the Snyders’ home. She sighed, then turned around, parking near the front gate. She got out of the car, walked to the mailbox, but to her surprise found very few letters. Ted and Henry both had noted the volumes of correspondence, which then Renee found stacked upon their coffee table. The stamps had always caught her attention, images and languages novel to her eyes. That day three envelopes waited and she huffed; they could have sat there for tomorrow when Ted would have collected them.
She closed the mailbox, then started back for her car. She’d driven the Chevy every day, as Sam felt it was wasteful for it to sit in the driveway. Renee had started to think of the new car as hers, which eased her mood. She stood beside it, admiring the lines, considering how much fun it was to handle. Driving the extra distance had actually been better than she imagined. Caught up in her thoughts, she’d passed right by Lynne’s house, and then Renee began to shake. She gazed at the front gate; behind that door sat an empty house. No one waited for Renee to come through; it was as if nothing existed past the walls.
That was how Renee had decided to imagine being here, if it had come to pass. And now that it had, she wondered if the strength of her imagination had erased the Snyders from existence. She smiled at herself, then again she trembled. Strange things happened behind this barrier. Stepping toward the front gate, Renee wondered if perhaps that large home had disappeared.
She didn’t ponder the impossibility of that idea, too lost in the wonder of where she stood. She was one foot away from entering a world that allowed the most unnatural events and she didn’t only consider Eric turning into a hawk. Behind this wall two men had shared the same bedroom. Past this barricade Renee had received a namesake. That made her heart ache and she shut her eyes tightly. Then she opened them, finding crumpled letters within her hand. She berated herself, then quickly walked back to the car. Stinging tears fell along her cheeks and she gazed at the postmarks, but couldn’t make out from where these had been sent. Yet now they were in poor shape. If more had arrived, Renee would have set them in the car, then driven away. How would she explain to Sam why they looked like she’d dropped them on the ground and driven over them?
She grew angry, then inhaled, a plan forming. If she took them inside, she could lay them under one of the stacks heaped on the table. Even though the Snyders were flying back on Sunday, it would be ages before Eric found these, and maybe they would have been pressed flat under the weight of so much correspondence. But Renee’s scheme hinged upon one enormous detail; she would have to walk through the front gate to get to the dining table inside the house.
Staring at the wrinkled letters, she prayed for guidance. Tapping her foot, she glanced at her car, then at the envelopes, then back to the car. Then she stared at that front gate. It was just a wooden gate, nothing scary about it. Clucking loudly, she marched straight for it. Ignoring her pounding heart, Renee pulled on the latch, then swung open the door. She blinked, and before she knew it, there stood the Snyders’ house. Renee took a deep breath, then let out it quickly. Sam had affixed Eric’s spare key to her ring last night. Renee shoved her hand into her pocket, removing her keys. They felt as if a leaden weight had instead been attached.
She hadn’t planned on using these keys, then she scowled at the crumpled letters. Sam hadn’t imagined he’d get so sick, Ted hadn’t dreamed one of his favorite parishioners would fall dead of a heart attack. Renee strode toward the front door, then stopped abruptly; the kitchen was too personal. Better to use the key for the French doors, if it worked, she allowed.
She got halfway around the house, then again she paused. She didn’t want to see that one glass pane. But before she could turn around, a host of brightly colored tulips caught her eye. She stared at the varied hues, waving in a soft breeze. Beyond those bulbs stood the fountain, but no water bubbled. Eric’s studio waited past that, his storage building to the right. Then Renee scanned the rest of the garden; clumpy sod had sprouted grass, the small lawn needed trimming. Boysenberries vines were leafy, as were trees, the whole scene like something out of The Secret Garden. But it wasn’t the plants that held the mystery, making Renee blink away tears.
Promptly she turned around, walking stiffly to the kitchen door. She opened it, not looking at the bare counters or table, marching into the dining room, where hordes of letters waited. Renee drew in a sharp breath; she hadn’t been prepared for this much mail. She exhaled, relieved for tall stacks under which she could carefully slide the crumpled notes. She spied one pile with some rather large manila folders at the bottom. Renee slipped her letters underneath those folders, then stood back, making certain that nothing toppled over.
Quickly she turned around, not wishing to see anything else. As she headed into the kitchen, she couldn’t help but scan the counters, just to make sure nothing was amiss. A note in the center of the table caught her gaze. She stepped toward it, finding the handwriting wasn’t Sam’s. It looked like Ted’s, and she peered more closely to confirm.
She nodded, it was from her brother-in-law, and said nothing more than Welcome Home. He had signed it Father Ted, making Renee giggle. She assumed Sam had let Eric know that his brothers were handling things and Ted had thought to offer Eric a small greeting. Then Renee whipped around as if someone was right behind her. All she saw was Jane’s high chair, set aside in the corner of the room.
Renee closed her eyes; for all the oddities this house permitted, that was the strangest piece. It wasn’t simply Eric and…. Lynne and Jane’s names beat in Renee’s heart, then hammered against her brain. All those letters were addressed to Eric, but he didn’t live here alone like some recluse, although one could wonder what with the tall walls. But those were to protect this family, hedging them in like a tangle of boysenberry vines. Renee shivered, then gazed back at Ted’s note. Welcome home, it read. The Snyders were returning, and soon. In two days, Renee knew. Two more days and….
She peeked around the corner of the kitchen doorway; those wrinkled letters wouldn’t benefit from where Renee had placed them, but maybe Eric would have the good sense to not question why they were creased. He might assume it was the postman’s fault, maybe they’d been damaged coming from overseas. Eric would have far too many other things to think about, like mowing the lawn or answering all those notes or painting Sam’s…. Renee frowned, then stepped to where letters were piled. Eric wouldn’t get to Sam’s portrait for a while. And that was good; Sam was still recovering. He didn’t need to pose for….
Carefully Renee gripped the side of the table; she didn’t want to disturb the stacks. If Sam posed for Eric, then Renee would have to…. But Sam had never said that, he’d never said any more to her than it was time. What exactly was it time for, or who, Renee then mused. She cracked her knuckles, then stared into the room, which opened up directly to the living room. Which through the far doorway led to the sunroom, from which bright light shone.
As if she was being beckoned from afar, Renee started walking toward the light. Her steps were slow, but not altogether unhindered. Yet she didn’t look at the furnishings, only to where light seemed to spill out like the sun blazed from that area of the house. As she reached the fireplace and sofa, she paused, having peered in that direction, as if assuring herself that indeed this was a home with which she was familiar. But the light was so stunning, Renee needed that touchstone. As she took in those items, she blinked, her heart beating so hard, she wondered if anyone else could hear it. But there was nobody else; Renee was alone, although she pondered that point too. Was there truly no other soul to witness how bright was this light?
She gazed into the sunroom doorway, squinting as she did so. Then she saw the reason; afternoon light was bouncing off the studio, directly into this space. She closed her eyes, then reopened them, amazed at the trajectory; did this hinder Eric when he painted? Then she was curious; she’d been here plenty of times, yet had never noticed how the light played off one building onto the main house. She gazed around the sunroom, empty except for collected dust. Lynne would have plenty of cleaning to do next week, Renee smiled, while Eric read the mail.
Renee turned around, finding how dark the rest of the home seemed. Her eyes had become so accustomed to the light, it took a few minutes for the rest of the house to appear as she expected. Yet, toys caught her attention, books and blocks and a few dolls, then she wondered how many new playthings would litter this home, all that Jane brought back from New York. Had Laurie taken Jane to that big toy store, and what about Stanford’s cook, and Michael Taylor and…. So many others now crowded out Renee, but that was for the best. She didn’t need another godchild, she didn’t need….
Light poured into the living room, swiftly moving past Renee, flooding the entire residence. But it wasn’t merely light; heat followed the brightness, swirling around Renee’s ankles, wafting upwards to her waist, her bust, her neckline. Then she was covered by warmth radiating from behind her, yet encompassing past her. If she moved forward, she knew that heat would also be there.
Instead she closed her eyes, remaining still. She prayed, asking God that if this was her time to go, to please let Sam know so that the next person to check on the house wouldn’t find a decomposing body in the middle of the Snyders’ living room. Maybe Ted would be best, he was a priest after all. But the warmth began to dissipate as she finished her petition, and by the time Renee opened her eyes, the light was gone, the heat along with it. Then she turned around; the sunroom looked as it always did, albeit in need of a good cleaning.
It took several rings for Renee to reach the Snyders’ telephone. “Hello?” she said breathlessly.
“Renee, thank God!”
“Oh Sam, I’m sorry.” She glanced at the wall clock; it was after six. “Oh honey, I’ve, uh, been cleaning.” Renee hadn’t even checked the time when she came in here for a broom and dustpan. “The sunroom was so messy, I didn’t want them coming back to such a disaster.”
“Well, thank goodness you’re all right.” Sam spoke slowly. Then he had a deep sigh. “So, are you coming home soon?”
Renee gazed at the kitchen floor, in need of mopping. “Yeah, I guess. There’s still plenty of work over here though.”
“Listen, we’ll get to it tomorrow. I’ve started dinner, aren’t you hungry?”
Her stomach rumbled as he spoke, which made her smile. “Well, now that you mention it. I just need to put away the broom.” And the dustpan and rags, she considered.
“Just leave all that for tonight Renee.”
Sam’s tone was plaintive and Renee nodded as if he stood in front of her. “Okay, sure. But I am coming over here tomorrow. Your brothers weren’t very careful in cleaning off their shoes before they came inside.”
“Yeah, sure. But drive safely, okay?”
“I will. I’ll be home in about twenty minutes.”
Sam sighed. “Okay. I love you honey.”
“Love you too Sam. Bye.”
Before he could answer, Renee hung up the receiver. Quickly she returned to the sunroom, sweeping up the piles, then dumping those into the garbage. Then she collected the dusty rags, setting them in the laundry room. She grabbed her keys from her pocket, then headed to the kitchen door. She locked it behind her, but dusk was falling. She would need to turn on the headlights to get home.
She went through the front gate, pulling it closed tightly. She walked around the car, but found she hadn’t locked it. Yet, she’d taken the mail inside, and her purse was safe on the floorboard. She got in the driver’s seat, inserted the key, starting the engine. She turned on the headlights, then gripped the wheel. Right before she pulled away, she glanced toward the gate. She could barely make it out now, darkness falling all around her. Had she actually stepped through that gate, she must have, for now it was night. Then she remembered that warmth, the light, and all that dust. She’d have to come back; no way could she let Lynne find all that accumulated dust. It would make Jane sneeze and…. Renee grasped the steering wheel with all her might. Taking a deep breath, she let it out as she drove away. The Snyders wouldn’t be home until Sunday. Renee had one day remaining, then she’d never set foot inside that property again.
Sitting on the side of the guest bed, Lynne sighed. Their suitcases were stuffed, but toys Laurie had bought Jane at FAO Schwarz, plus gifts from Agatha and Michael, remained on the mattress. They would need another piece of luggage to get all of this home, then Lynne smiled. Laurie had offered one of their cases, and from the looks of it, the Snyders would call in that favor.
The flight was at ten tomorrow morning, but heading west, they would arrive home in time for a late lunch. Eric had booked them in first class, which originally Lynne had thought was ostentatious. Now she was relieved for the better service they would receive, or at least more comfortable seats. She had slept poorly last night, dreaming of a terrible fight with Renee. After breakfast Lynne had told Eric about it, mostly because he’d pestered her. Laurie and Stanford hadn’t noticed her glum mood, or maybe they had, or perhaps only Laurie. Yet, they had chatted like this was their usual weekend routine, although it had been a little strange without Agatha. That woman’s calming touch was missed by Lynne as she ate cereal and a banana, then she smiled. All three men had complained about the mediocre coffee, even Laurie, who had made it.
Lynne didn’t know when she would see Agatha again, although that woman claimed that having never flown on an airplane, perhaps it was time to give it a try. Lynne would love to host Agatha and whomever she brought with her, maybe her husband, probably her sister. Either way, there was a perfect guest room, then Lynne smiled. Laurie was already making noises about visiting that summer and while the New Yorkers would spend their end of year holidays at home, in January they would be eager to meet the new addition. Lynne had wept at Laurie’s statement, but she’d found that nearly anything made her teary. Although, she mused, when she’d stirred from her dream, no tears had been present. The fight with Renee had been awful, and while Lynne couldn’t recall what it was about, the tenor reverberated even now, hours later. Renee had been furious with Lynne and all Lynne could assume was it had been in response to the coming baby.
A mother placed her hand over that child; if Renee decided their friendship was over, there was little Lynne could do about it. At least she had Fran Canfield, and Sam’s sister Joan was very personable. Last night Agatha had made it clear that she would appreciate letters, when Lynne had time. And of course that meant snapshots included within the envelopes, just as Lynne sent to Laurie, and consequently to Stanford. Eric probably wrote his dealer a couple of times a month, but Lynne and Laurie exchanged notes weekly, pictures of Jane usually accompanying. Lynne would send different photos to Agatha, who would share them, giving all these East Coasters more glimpses of Lynne’s lovely little girl.
That daughter was babbling just outside the door, making Lynne get up as Eric entered their room. “Someone misses her mama,” Eric smiled, but he didn’t immediately hand over the baby. Jane needed a new diaper, which Lynne detected as soon as her family had stepped close. Lynne grinned, then made her way to the door.
“I’ll let you have the honors,” she said, feeling a little sick. She hoped that sensation wouldn’t last much longer, as she couldn’t task Eric with that chore when they got home. He had much to accomplish, what with the Queens’ sketches, Sam’s portrait, and from what Sam said, sorting through heaps of mail sent from overseas. Lynne reached the doorway, then smiled at her husband, who was trying to find space on the cluttered bed. “I’ll go ask Laurie for an extra suitcase while you attend to the girl.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Eric pushed aside teddy bears and books, then laid Jane on the sheet. He glanced at his wife. “Tell him we might need two pieces of luggage.”
“I’ll do that, also that it’s his fault.” She blew kisses toward her husband and daughter, then headed from the room. Stanford and Laurie could be heard in the living room, so Lynne went that direction. She now felt comfortable wandering around this apartment, finding Stanford reading a book while Laurie admired the Queens’ drawings. Lynne approached him, scanning the sketches spread out over the coffee table. She wondered where was the one of Agatha done here, but she didn’t ask, what with Stanford just feet away. “So Laurie,” Lynne began, “we need at least one more suitcase.”
He gazed at her and she met his eyes, although she wanted to look back at Eric’s dealer, who seemed to be stifling a laugh. Then Laurie smiled. “I’ll go see what I can find.”
After he walked away, Stanford did chuckle. He set down his book, then stood, meeting Lynne who remained by the coffee table. “I told him he bought too much stuff. He never listens to me.”
Lynne nodded, again wishing to study Stanford’s face. But his gentle tone relayed plenty, a sweet fondness having emerged over the last month. Then Lynne looked at him; he wore faded trousers and a long-sleeved shirt that had endured many washings. Only his glasses reminded her of the formally dressed businessman; this person was indeed different.
Over the last four weeks, Stanford had toted, and doted upon, Lynne’s daughter. He’d laughed even with Jane in his arms and that girl had fallen asleep on his shoulder more than once. How many times had Lynne seen smudges on Stanford’s usually spotless spectacles, how many instances had she heard him crooning? Maybe most of those moments had occurred within the last week, when Lynne, Eric, and Jane had returned with one more in tow. Somehow that coming baby had truly worn away Stanford’s impeccable edge. He would retrieve it Monday morning, Lynne was certain, but the next time she saw him might this more relaxed version of Eric’s dealer be the norm?
“Well, it was so kind of Laurie to spoil Jane so thoroughly. Agatha too.” Then Lynne continued. “You’ve been such a help with Jane, it’s really been wonderful.”
While Laurie had purchased the items, it had been unspoken they were also from Stanford. Lynne didn’t want him to feel excluded and his willingness to hold Jane hadn’t been missed by either her mother or father. Stanford cleared his throat, then nodded, stepping a foot back from where he had been. Then he gazed at the coffee table. “Well, she’s been quite well behaved, I must say.”
Now Lynne fought a giggle. “She’s had her moments. Hopefully she’ll be good tomorrow on the plane.”
“Mmmhmm,” Stanford hummed. Then he sighed. Lynne observed how he stared at the drawings, then crossed his arms over his chest. Was he mulling over possibly posing for Eric, or merely curious to how Lynne’s husband would bring those sketches to life?
Lynne hoped he would paint them as vividly as how he’d captured her as a farm, forest, coral reef…. Endless had been Eric’s imagination when she had first posed for him sans clothing. Lynne didn’t remember bright hues attached to Agatha’s neighborhood, but these pencil drawings screamed for colors, and maybe Lynne might suggest that to her husband. She had steered him towards primary shades when hawks had been his focus. Yet, she remained silent there with Stanford. It was one thing to subtly speak about art with Eric, but with a man who might one day be a model for a painting….
Just how he stood there would be a good start, dressed casually, gazing at his client’s work. Lynne rued that she had made Eric change Jane. She should have sent him out to witness a moment that Eric could have indelibly placed within his brain, then later drawn with precision. Yet she’d felt woozy, better for Eric to deal with a messy diaper while Lynne went hunting the man responsible for the need for more luggage. Lynne gazed at where Laurie had gone down the hallway. He’d probably found an extra case, then deposited it in the guest room, where he, Eric, and Jane were now making conversation, or perhaps even filling that suitcase, or trying to.
Lynne smiled, then peeked at her companion; Stanford was still studying the sketches, his arms crossed, but now his brow was furrowed. Lynne breathed as quietly as possible, never having been alone with Stanford for so long. If only she was an artist, she softly sighed; oh the picture she would paint.
He appeared focused upon all of the drawings together; what piece was holding his attention, or was he even considering the subjects? Maybe he was mulling over if he might ever be featured within an Eric Snyder canvas. Lynne watched as he remained so still, barely blinking. Stanford seemed to have forgotten she was there, which didn’t offend her. Never had Lynne been given an opportunity to study a most aloof person.
Yet, she had been privileged to see another side to him, even this was new, in how little he said, yet often he was quiet, although never when with just one other person. If Stanford was near someone, there was a reason for that proximity, even if it was merely to soothe Lynne’s daughter. Yet Jane couldn’t talk back, couldn’t observe with the same depth as her mother, and while Eric was indeed the most discerning Snyder, Lynne possessed rather keen skills when it came to assessing human behavior. All those years as a nurse, she allowed, not to mention her tenure as the wife of a most amazing man.
But Stanford Taylor wasn’t a simple sort; his intellect was profound, although slightly cloaked by his detached nature. It wasn’t that he was narrow-minded, but that much of his intelligence was dedicated so intently, instead of being spread over a broad spectrum. This man knew more about art than, well, then Lynne smiled. Just about all he knew was art. Yet art was a powerful medium and maybe for Stanford art was enough. Art and how to calm a one-year-old, Lynne inwardly chuckled.
Perhaps Eric didn’t need to paint Stanford, although Lynne wanted to see Laurie through Eric’s vision. Then she frowned slightly; she would love to see the New Yorkers together however Eric thought was best. But maybe that was a dream that Lynne couldn’t help but lump alongside wishing her friendship with Renee could return as before. Before made Lynne sigh, which caused Stanford to turn in her direction. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She nodded, but tears formed in her eyes. Before she never would have cried around this man, but before he had never seemed so, so…. Stanford was human to Lynne, and it hadn’t taken Eric’s talent to bring that notion to life. Lynne brushed aside her tears, then smiled. “Just what Eric’s gonna have to deal with for the next several months. A soppy wife, among other things.”
Stanford pulled a handkerchief from his pants’ pocket. Handing it to Lynne, he wore a funny smile, which immediately brightened her mood. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, then laughed. “Thank you Stanford. You’re always prepared.”
“Even on weekends,” he grinned. Then he gazed again at the coffee table. “Don’t tell him I said this, but I am quite intrigued by how this series will play out. Well, I suppose he already knows that, but exactly how he interprets these drawings. I wonder how he’ll do it.”
“I’d like to see bright colors.” Then she smiled. “I urged him to add more vivid tones when he was still painting hawks. They just seemed so drab before.”
Stanford stared at her. “I always wondered why he changed the hues.” Then the dealer chuckled. “You have more influence on him than I imagined.”
“Maybe.” She gazed at Stanford. How would Eric interpret this man, the idea making Lynne ache. “I’ll tell you this, when I started to model for him, he certainly took me by surprise.”
She didn’t mean her initial poses and Stanford understood. “Yes, I imagine you were quite startled by that first canvas.”
Lynne laughed. “I had no idea what he’d been planning all that time.”
Stanford joined her laughter, stepping closer to her. Then Lynne wondered if maybe Eric might paint the New Yorkers in a similarly veiled way. As their loved ones stepped into the living room, she joined her husband and daughter as Laurie stood by his man. Lynne took Jane, kissing her forehead, while another couple gazed at an artist’s handiwork. Eric put his arm around his wife, but the men simply admired the sketches. Lynne leaned against her husband, wondering if he was taking stock. As he nuzzled against the back of her head, she smiled. Time would tell how and when he captured Stanford and Laurie, but Lynne was certain they wouldn’t avoid Eric’s talent forever.
By late Saturday afternoon two households were being reordered. In New York, nearly all of the Snyders’ belongings were tucked in several suitcases, leaving one Manhattan apartment somewhat bereft, not to mention the owners of that residence feeling out of place. Laurie tried not to think how empty his and Stanford’s home would be after their guests departed, while Stanford wished Eric would leave behind some of the Queens sketches. And occasionally, Stanford wondered if there might be time for Eric to fashion one more drawing, but an appropriate moment to extend that request never materialized.
In a sleepy West Coast town, Renee and Sam tackled dust and a small amount of gardening, although Renee did most of the work. Renee had been correct, Sam mused while making coffee; his brothers hadn’t wiped their feet well, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Sam wondered if Ted and Henry’s lack of decorum was intentional, well, maybe on Ted’s part. Sam couldn’t imagine for what other reason his wife would be in this house, even if the usual occupants were away.
Sam sighed, sitting in Lynne’s kitchen, while Renee bustled about outside. Sam had started the mower, although it took a lot from him, in part that the mower hadn’t been run since last fall. And now that he was on his feet, Sam was weary. He wondered exactly when Eric would want to start the painting, then Sam took a sip of luke-warm coffee. He stared at his mug, then smiled, pondering the state of the world in which he found even tepid decaf a necessity.
Maybe it was only within this property that Sam would drink such a beverage. He’d made the pot simply out of habit, although there was no pie to accompany. He gazed around the room, wishing Lynne was there, Eric too, and of course Jane. Sam missed that little girl with a fierce ache; he also missed Frannie’s kids, he couldn’t wait to feel back to normal. Then he heard Renee come in through the living room French doors. Sam’s heart beat irregularly within his chest. As she stepped into the kitchen, he studied her; she wore a kerchief in her hair, one of his old t-shirts, dungarees and tennis shoes, and she smelled like freshly cut grass. He smiled, finding her so beautiful in such an odd get-up, but she looked stern, like a taskmaster. She was only here under duress.
A terrifying notion rippled through Sam; his wife would never again come to this home, or at least not dressed like usual. He’d never see her here in a nursing uniform, or in one of her pretty dresses, or in casual slacks. Sometimes in summer she wore Capri pants, in winter she like corduroys. But the ensemble she now donned was that of a domestic, like she was the cleaning lady. She poured herself some coffee, took a sip, made a face. “Goodness, decaf’s awful,” she said, promptly dumping the contents down Lynne’s sink.
While she got herself a glass of water, Sam drank his coffee, which wasn’t that bad, although it tasted better hot. He wanted to say that to his wife, but didn’t wish to start an argument. He turned her way, then met her gaze. Her eyes looked cold, making him shiver inwardly. His lovely, warmhearted, at times impetuous wife was trapped deep inside this bitter, angry woman. How in the world could Sam rescue her?
A soldier stood in front of him; Renee had been sent to the front lines, as mentally prepared as any man with whom Sam had fought, or those who wanted to get out of that mess with as much of themselves as intact as possible. But sometimes all that rational preparation was lost in the midst of battle, Sam had watched it happen. Occasionally the well-equipped man stumbled as hell swirled around him; how many times had Josh carried a member of their platoon back to the unit? Josh had done the heavy lifting, for he was the brawniest guy in the troop. Sometimes those injured men displayed no outward wounds. They had fought and fought until they could fight no more.
That was Renee, Sam realized, yet he had no expertise in this sort of counseling. And Renee didn’t want help; too afraid of again being hurt, she had ended her sessions with Marek, closing off that part of her heart. Yes, she could be here, to clean. Sam stared at how she leaned against the counter, arms crossed, then she would reach for her glass, sipping her water, but as soon as she was done, that cup went to the Formica while Renee again clenched those upper limbs over her chest like a shield.
Faint lines edged her mouth, crows’ feet settling around her opaque eyes. Those eyes appeared so aged, like many of the men in Sam’s platoon. They had witnessed more mayhem than was good for anyone, but all had been too damn young to properly process the turmoil. It was then slotted away, and some were better at keeping it in than others. Some men had a flair for combat, Sam wouldn’t deny that. And some had a gift for how to weave that chaos into their civilian lives. Sam possessed the latter, and he hadn’t been a bad soldier. If Josh had lived, Sam guessed he would be much the same, maybe Larry Hudson too. But who knew, Sam mused. Maybe it was better for those men to have died in Korea than to have come home wrecked in different ways.
And what of those attached to soldiers? Could Sam have ever imagined the grief Renee would suffer, of course not. He never would have enlisted if even one iota of her pain had been foreseen. Then Sam trembled; Eric had married Lynne under a similar cloud. Both knew fully well that Eric’s life was troubled, yet they hadn’t been deterred. They’d been young, Sam permitted, maybe youth was the difference. Sam and Renee had been young too, married already, when Sam swore an oath to his country. But they’d had no idea what was waiting overseas.
Some of the vets Sam counseled were married, a few were divorced. Some had never found a wife, like Seth. Sam was curious as to how that man was faring in Florida, and he hoped Eric had good news to share. Then Sam wondered if that news would only go as far as himself. Would Renee care, or was she cutting out these people lock, stock, and barrel? Maybe if he asked, then Sam would know just how final was this visit. He cleared his throat, catching her attention. If he said it quickly enough, her reaction might be all the answer necessary. “So Renee, if Eric knows anything about Seth, shall I tell you?”
Sam looked at her as he spoke, yet his voice was as flat as he could make it. She blinked, staring at her shoes. Then she gazed up as if wanting to meet his eyes. But she couldn’t look him in the face. Instead she seemed to focus on the far wall, where Sam imagined one day another table would sit, where Lynne did arts and crafts with Jane and whoever else came along.
The room was silent and Sam kept Renee in his sights. She was breathing, he could tell by how her chest rose, then fell, still well protected by her upper limbs. But now she gripped her forearms and her lip trembled. Sam ached to rush to her side, but he had to stay seated. Yes, this was a test. It was now or never, then Sam fought a smile. Shit or get off the pot Ahern, but for the first time the memory of Josh’s admonishment wasn’t for Sam.
Renee began to quiver and looked to be fighting tears. Sam wondered if she was waiting for him to embrace her, but something held him back, for no one could pull her over this hurdle. She wasn’t like the men Josh had carried back to their foxhole and for that Sam was grateful. Those men had fallen apart so completely, Sam hadn’t been sure they would ever put themselves together.
Sam’s wife was involved in a different skirmish; Sam felt a chill and he prayed for Renee. This was a war far above Sam’s ability to mediate except via divine intercession. And yet it was the most important fight of his life, for what little he could do. Renee’s beautiful heart, so long suffering, was being ripped apart by a vicious foe, but God was on the Aherns’ side.
Renee remained silent, but now tears fell down her face, making Sam squirm. But as God had demanded Lynne’s trust, he now needed Sam’s belief. Ironic how a few years ago, Sam had stood in this kitchen, completely incredulous of all that Lynne had claimed. He had considered her an insane liar and had slammed the door in his wake as if to make certain she knew it. Even after Eric returned, Sam was still skeptical. He had made the overture when Lynne went to retrieve the casserole dishes. But still Sam had thought the worst about her until he witnessed Eric turning into a bird.
What did Renee think about Lynne Snyder? They had been good friends, then were bound by an incredible secret. That link was permanently sealed by one baby’s birth, Jane’s baptism an added yoke that initially carried no burden. Renee felt guilty about not upholding her role as Jane’s godmother, Sam knew that. But remorse wouldn’t heal Renee’s heart; it only added further fuel to an erroneous argument that had been festering within Renee. All of these negative elements were driving Sam’s wife farther from those who loved her most. And, Sam admitted with a great deal of relief, he wasn’t on top of that list.
The Aherns still attended church, Renee right at Sam’s side every week for communion. She went to confession, or said she did, and Sam assumed that she never missed it. But the biggest admission was probably hidden deeply within her and it had nothing to do with Lynne or Jane, or even Sam. Now Sam stared at his wife, wondering how she could remain on her feet, what with the cauldron bubbling inside her. Yet he stayed seated, aware that God was in control.
Sam didn’t ask why Renee was being so tested. That would be like asking why Eric turned into a hawk, why Sam had gotten shot, why Josh and Larry had died. Why had God sent his own son to Earth, but men ignored the largest blessing ever proffered? Why had Peter denied Christ three times, then become his chosen disciple? Why was a silly question, Sam knew. Why was the opposite of faith.
But Christ had been divine, whereas human beings were most certainly not. To question was at the root of sin, how the serpent had led Eve to eat that apple to realize the difference between good and bad, but the differences were relative. Was it bad that Sam couldn’t father a child, that Eric became a hawk? Sam felt it was wrong how much Renee hurt, but then he hadn’t seen any initial purpose to Eric’s horrific transformations. Sam had learned a lot about trust in those ensuing months, then Jane was born and…. And now Sam and Renee were at the Snyders’, where that family would be tomorrow. Was this truly the last time Renee would stand in this kitchen?
Sam gazed around the room. It wasn’t exactly the same as when he had thought Lynne was crazy. It was altered, as were all of them. Sam even drank decaf coffee without hesitation, well, he could tell a difference, but that didn’t mean decaf was lousy, just not as strong as regular. What change was God trying to forge within Renee that would cause Satan to so strongly oppose? That was how Sam now saw all that had occurred over the last year. He swallowed hard; a year had passed since Frannie had told them about the twins, but in that year Sam had accepted how much fatherhood meant to him. Was it right that Renee had suffered so much, Sam wasn’t sure. Eric and Lynne had gone to hell and back countless times, and maybe they weren’t done. And what about Seth? Would that man ever be well?
Renee still hadn’t answered Sam’s query, so he repeated it. But this time, his tone carried great weight, for it wasn’t simply about Laurie’s cousin. This inquiry encompassed all whom Sam held dear. For if Renee didn’t wish to know about Seth, she was also writing off everyone connected to that man, the New Yorkers as well as the family who dwelled in this residence, a family that was also bound to the Aherns, if not by blood, then by Christ.
Sam and Renee were Jane’s godparents. Eric was Sam’s brother and Lynne was…. She was Renee’s sister. If Renee didn’t want to know about Seth, eventually she would turn away from her blood relatives, Sam’s family, leaving her utterly alone. That was what Satan wanted, for then Renee’s heart would be dead, her soul as well. Sam said a brief prayer, maybe it wasn’t even an actual appeal. He simply considered his savior’s name and how the devil had tempted Jesus. For forty days and nights Christ had endured enticement. Surely God wouldn’t try Renee any longer than was absolutely necessary.
Or maybe she was standing there solely due to Christ. Then Sam nodded, although it wasn’t just to himself. He looked up, finding Renee’s arms limp at her sides, her sodden eyes red blobs in her face. Her cries were silent, but Sam thought that was for his benefit; she looked to have expended as much pain as Eric had during that awful week in December, yet Eric hadn’t been able to mask the shrieks attached to such difficult healing. Sam stood, feeling pulled in his wife’s direction. Slowly he approached her, inhaling the most healing fragrance he’d ever encountered. It carried a hint of incense, buffered by candle wax, but the third part was a soothing mystery that Sam only considered briefly. For in front of him stood someone he remembered well, but who had been lost for months and months. This tender, precious woman was Sam’s wife, Jane’s godmother and namesake. She was one of Christ’s lambs having been returned to her husband by a most watchful, loving shepherd.
Sniffles shook Renee’s whole frame and Sam carefully stroked her wet face. “It’s okay honey, I love you. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
She started to nod, then hesitated, finding his gaze. Her eyes were so cloudy, but in those white-gray irises, Sam could see the girl he had fallen in love with, the woman he had married, and another face, which made his heart rumble like a train within his chest. This woman still wanted to be the mother of his children. Sam inhaled sharply, finding that peaceful scent within the Snyders’ kitchen. He didn’t ponder its origins or when he and Renee would…. The past or future didn’t matter, only that moment as Renee collapsed into Sam’s arms, her warm, soft body merging with his. Then her sobs rang out, but muffled against Sam’s chest, their sting was lessened. Renee bawled like a baby as Sam gently rubbed her back, kissing the side of her face, her tears salty and warm. They were also a salve poured out like the balm used upon Jesus’ feet. Sam felt his savior’s presence all around them as if angels were tending Renee’s wounds. It was how Sam had felt when Josh died within his arms, but this time there was no agony or fear. Renee’s eyes were closed, but when they opened, Sam would relish their brightness, also the new vision with which they saw the world. Not that his wife would lose her brassy nature, he smiled, telling her how much he loved her. But that brazenness would now be tempered with a newly forged tenderness best befitting…. A mother, Sam permitted, as new life bounced within his ribcage. If God had another plan, Sam wouldn’t argue. But maybe it was time, for both Aherns. Sam prayed for God’s will, then gave thanks to Christ for the broken yet healed woman trembling in his grasp.
Having overslept, the Aherns skipped church on Sunday morning. Although Renee fretted some, Sam wasn’t bothered. The only task he had to perform that day was to collect the Snyders from the airport. But they weren’t arriving until early afternoon, giving Sam and his wife plenty of time to recover from yesterday’s revelations.
Sam didn’t even wonder when Renee might want to visit their best friends; Lynne, Eric, and Jane were all Renee could talk about, once she could speak, yet she only said a little within the Snyders’ house. The rest was shared in the Aherns’ bedroom, under the covers, nestled closely to her husband. And while Renee never mentioned adoption, Sam could tell it was on the tip of her tongue. He wouldn’t try to cajole that subject from Renee, nor did he want her to join him that afternoon at the airport. But he would mention to Eric that perhaps in the coming week, he and Renee both would like to stop by, once the Snyders were over jet lag.
Yet Eric Snyder wasn’t only on Sam’s mind. He figured heavily in Stanford’s head, and in Laurie’s. Those men hadn’t posed for the artist, although as Lynne changed Jane, Stanford mentioned it in passing as if he’d just thought of it then and there. Both Eric and Laurie wanted to stare at the dealer, yet they merely acknowledged the idea, Eric noting that perhaps when the men made their next trip west he might have a free minute to draw their likenesses. Eric’s tone was teasing, which made Laurie chuckle while Stanford hid a grimace. When Lynne and Jane appeared, three chaps said nothing of Stanford’s query, but once on the plane, Eric and Lynne discussed it thoroughly.
As the Snyders flew west, one other considered their trip. Seth wasn’t certain of their departure and arrival times, but he knew this was the day he could safely go home. However, he’d made no such overtures to return to Brooklyn. Not that he loved Miami or that he loathed New York; it was simply easier to stay where he was, even if life with Uncle Mickey and Aunt Sheila was at times vexing. Aunt Sheila was still trying to fix him up and while Seth had politely declined her previous attempts, Sheila was undaunted. Her mother Hildy had privately told Seth that now Sheila had a challenge, and as of yet, Sheila Goldsmith had never turned down any such contest. Sheila was certain the right woman was waiting for Seth and it was just a matter of time.
On that particular Sunday, Seth wandered around the Goldsmiths’ neighborhood, the weather slightly sultry. It felt like summer in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t even yet May. Seth had kept his hair short, in part to not raise any more questions from his uncle, who had taken Seth aside after yet another young woman had been introduced, then rejected. Mickey plainly asked if Seth was like Laurie. Seth had smiled, replying that no he wasn’t, but he also wasn’t looking for a wife. It was too soon, Seth had then said, his tone quite somber. Mickey immediately backed off, not that he felt he had insulted Seth or Laurie, but that it hadn’t been six months since Seth left Caffey-Miller. Mickey hadn’t been as worried as his sisters about the effects of Seth’s shock treatments; Mickey believed that if a doctor said something was necessary, so be it. On his nephew’s behalf, Mickey had spoken to his wife, but Sheila thought both were crazy. A man needed a woman to look after him and Sheila merely had to find Seth the correct match.
Not that Seth hadn’t wanted to sleep with one or two of Aunt Sheila’s finds. Life in Miami was liberating in one way, or maybe Seth was feeling better. Sometimes he thought that perhaps shock therapy had provided a measure of healing as he rarely considered suicide, yet that action never fully left his mind. But it was mitigated with stories shared by some of Sheila’s relatives causing Seth to reexamine his previous worries. Several of those Feinman aunts and uncles had European accents, but only a few spoke English. Often they talked in Yiddish, not wishing to speak the language of their native country. All had immigrated to the United States before the outbreak of World War II, and while they had lived in Florida for over twenty years, they hadn’t needed to learn English. Sometimes Seth felt like he lived in two worlds, that of America and of another nation comprised of transplanted Israelites.
But only Mickey and Sheila’s daughter Tovah had been to Israel. She had visited her parents for two weeks right after Seth arrived, and the cousins got along well. Around Tovah, Seth could be himself, or who he felt he was, post-shock therapy. Or, he mused, slowly meandering along sidewalks which bordered well-manicured green lawns, around Tovah Seth had begun piecing himself back together. She didn’t expect him to do or say or even create anything more than amiable conversation, and while her Hebrew was passable, her English was flawless. Seth had smiled when she spoke Yiddish with her elderly relatives; they clucked at her all the while trying to teach her their way of pronunciation. They didn’t try to entice Seth into their vernacular, but those who could speak English enjoyed spending time with this rather intriguing young fellow who had served his country in Asia. They never asked about his war experiences, nor did they question where else he had been. He was novel for his New York accent, his artistic talent, and that for as hard as Sheila tried, Seth still remained single.
But it had only been a month, one of the women would huff, then she might clasp his hand within hers, pinching his cheek as if he was five years old. None of his Brooklyn relatives were that effusive, but then Seth had closed himself off to all of them, save his mother. Not even Aunt Rose would have been so demonstrative. And Seth wasn’t bothered by his Miami family, mostly because once he left Florida, they would as good as disappear. He hadn’t promised to write to Tovah, there were no pretenses among these people. Despite his lack of a shared language, they were all much the same, those displaced from their homes, making do under the incessant Florida sunshine.
But sultry weather didn’t bother Seth; after Korea, he was impervious to climatic changes. Some of Sheila’s family teased that he would melt when the humidity truly grew awful, but he had smiled, countering that New York summers could get nasty. He never mentioned his time in the army, in part that he hated thinking about it, and that it would have implied that he had suffered. Sheila’s European relations had fled Germany because of Hitler. That realization surrounded Seth like a soothing blanket, even on muggy days. Here in Florida, plenty of people were worse off than he.
Yet they were also much like his mother and Aunt Rose, his sisters and cousins and…. Then Seth sighed, reaching the end of that block. No one here, not even Tovah, reminded Seth of Laurie, and while Seth loved his cousin unreservedly, it was Laurie who was now keeping Seth in Florida. Eric Snyder had left New York, not that Seth didn’t want to meet Eric, but if he met Eric…. If Seth met Eric, it would be like meeting someone who hadn’t escaped Europe before Kristallnacht. Some of Aunt Sheila’s relatives had moved to the United States before that event, some had arrived shortly afterwards. And most of those that had remained died in The Holocaust. The few who had survived went to Israel; Tovah was in touch with some of them. They were young, like Seth and Tovah, and had preferred to restart their lives in a nation solely Jewish.
Tovah loved living in Tel Aviv; it was nothing like Miami, which of course Seth had laughed at when she described her neighborhood. Tovah’s husband Ben was an accountant, his family having fled Germany after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, settling in Tel Aviv. But Tovah hadn’t spoken much about Ben, as if that part of her life was verboten. Seth hadn’t talked about Minnesota, maybe those situations were akin. Sheila’s family had set aside their European roots, or some of them, while Seth had blocked out Korea. Those places were of the past and life was for the living. As Seth crossed the street, he smiled. What would Laurie think if Seth shared that notion?
Sometimes Seth wished Laurie was in Florida; maybe away from Brooklyn Seth could start to reveal to his closest cousin all that troubled him. Then Seth frowned, reaching the other side of the street. He looked down that block, rows of houses with neat front yards, big cars parked in driveways. This was the American dream, but not everyone’s desire. Initially Tovah had gone to college in Israel to please her mother, who felt their family needed to strengthen their Jewish roots. But Sheila hadn’t imagined her daughter would want to stay there. Ben’s family was firmly established within that still relatively new nation and Tovah deeply loved her husband and her emerging sense of Jewish nationality. Tovah still had her American accent, but she called Tel Aviv home.
What was that like, Seth wondered, as he made his way back to where he’d been living for the last four weeks. Uncle Mickey and Aunt Sheila didn’t mind his presence; he kept himself occupied either by helping with household chores or visiting relatives. Sometimes he filled in at Uncle Mickey’s chiropractic office when the receptionist was away. He had even tried a little sculpting, but never got very far. He couldn’t concentrate, an ability which had indeed been hampered by shock therapy, although only after Seth had been discharged from the hospital. He’d fashioned several pieces in Minnesota, but once he went home, it was like his hands and brain no longer functioned in unison. He could imagine sculpting, but putting it into practice was futile.
He’d told no one that, especially not Laurie. If Laurie knew…. That had been why Seth couldn’t meet Eric. He didn’t want to talk art with such a brilliant and prolific painter, although at one point Seth had actually considered backing out of his Florida sojourn. That afternoon when Laurie visited, Seth wanted to tell his cousin the truth about Eric. Maybe if Laurie knew about Eric, then he might be able to understand why Seth had enlisted.
Seth smiled, returning to Uncle Mickey’s street. The Goldsmith house was third from the corner, but no cars were parked in the driveway. Uncle Mickey was at work while Aunt Sheila could be at any number of places; shopping, visiting relatives, attending a function related to their synagogue. Occasionally Seth went to Friday evening services; he found them soothing, as if he’d grown up steeped in Jewish customs. He hadn’t, was as irreligious as Laurie. Their mothers and sisters were more faithful, well, somewhat more involved, but compared to the Goldsmiths, the Gordons and Abrams were downright godless. Not that Uncle Mickey ever complained about his sisters, although Aunt Sheila groused about Wilma and Rose and the rest.
Reaching Mickey and Sheila’s house, Seth walked up to the front door, but didn’t immediately pull out his key. He turned around, noting the finely cut green grass, the well-maintained flowerbeds, and a few lizards darting in and out of the lawn. Until Florida, he’d never seen lizards in such a domestic setting; they were nearly as common as mosquitoes. They loved to climb the mesh along the screened-in back porch, scurrying along like they owned the place. Seth wondered that if hawks were prevalent in this neighborhood, would these same lizards continue to flaunt themselves with impunity. Aunt Sheila hated them, but their presence was taken for granted by everyone else. Seth gazed at the sky, thinking about Eric. Just how far had that man ever flown, how long had he been a hawk at any given time? If Seth had stayed in New York, would they have talked about that, or would their conversations been kept strictly to art. Seth retrieved his key, unlocking the front door. He’d never know the answer to that question because instead of facing Eric, he’d simply run away.
Laurie never openly accused Seth of that, neither had Seth’s mother, but it was the truth. Yet truth was a funny notion, for truth also included occurrences that normally wouldn’t be allowed as reality. Seth knew why Eric had painted the blue barn; it was as plain as the lizards in Uncle Mickey’s front lawn, creatures that wouldn’t stand a chance against a ravenous hawk. For some reason the mice had escaped unscathed, and maybe one day Seth would know why that was. But if Eric ever made his way east, those lizards should beware. Stepping into the kitchen, Seth laughed. Those unsuspecting creatures would make for easy pickings. And if Eric ever painted such a scene, then Seth would have all the necessary proof to give Laurie. Maybe someday Seth would tell his cousin that amazing fact. If Laurie thought Seth was unstable now, what would he make of a man turning into a bird?
One week had passed since the Snyders’ return. In that time, Seth had made overtures that he wished to stay longer in Miami, greatly pleasing his Aunt Sheila while worrying his mother and Aunt Rose. Laurie had let Seth’s latest decision pass without public comment and there was very little Laurie needed to say to Stanford. Laurie did write to his cousin, detailing the highlights of Eric, Lynne, and Jane’s visit, noting the Queens’ sketches, wondering if Seth’s artistic side might be piqued. Closing the letter, Laurie told Seth how much he loved him and not to come back with a Florida-born wife. While Laurie wasn’t thrilled by Seth’s continued absence, the lingering effects of the Snyders’ stay filled Laurie with a strange hope. He chalked it up to the coming baby, about which only he, Stanford, and Agatha were aware.
Yet, on the West Coast, one other knew of that blessing, and Dr. Salters had pronounced a mid-January due date for the second Snyder child. Lynne had seen her doctor the second day she was home and by the end of the week blood tests had confirmed what parents well knew. Lynne was sick in the mornings, sleepy for much of the day, and quite emotional, yet those symptoms had been concealed from the family’s pastor, as well as from Sam and Renee. Lynne wasn’t sure for how much longer she could keep the news under wraps, but neither she nor Eric felt the timing was right to tell the Aherns. Renee had joined Sam for a brief visit on Friday while Jane was napping. The women had shared copious tears and Eric felt the reason for Lynne’s excessive outburst had remained secret. The two couples hadn’t paired off during the Aherns’ stay, for it was simply to welcome home the Snyders, and to begin a form of healing for Renee. Eric learned that on Saturday, when the men bumped into each other at the market. While Sam didn’t get into specifics, Eric gleaned that a breakthrough of sorts had occurred, at least concerning the Snyders. Although, Sam had gently sighed, he wasn’t sure when Renee might be ready to see Jane.
That girl was a popular figure at St. Matthew’s the following day and a dinner date was set for Thursday between Marek and some of his favorite parishioners, he smiled. Lynne had started to cry, but her tears were of a happy sort, their homecoming now complete. Eric hadn’t realized how much he’d missed their usual routine until that Sunday at church. Once Renee had interacted with Jane, then perhaps life at home would be fully restored. But as a new week began, Eric would let that last step proceed as nature dictated. He hadn’t mentioned to Sam their upcoming project, only that the garden needed his attention as well as catching up on all the correspondence that now rested upon spare card tables in the Snyders’ living room.
The letters were separated into three categories, those with no return address, those with a legible address, and those in which Eric couldn’t decipher the origin. He would answer all the notes possible, and when Marek came for dinner, Eric would seek his assistance in translating those notes not in English, of which there were a fair number. But Eric could discern most of the mail and what he had found time to read touched him deeply. It also made him ache to work on the Queens’ sketches, but first, Eric had started to paint Lynne’s portrait.
Perhaps having been away from his oils and canvases had been good, for now Eric’s gift was being put to use at any spare moment. If Jane was sleeping, Eric and Lynne used the sunroom. If the baby was awake, the family trekked to the studio, the days warm and growing longer. Lynne didn’t mind that Eric spent much of the early evenings outside and on some of those nights she joined him, sitting on the stool with Jane in her arms while yet upon another blank canvas was created vibrantly colored life. As Lynne had hoped, Eric used bright shades in depicting his now expanding family and he said these same colors would continue in the Queens’ paintings. Maybe spring had enhanced a painter’s mindset, for the garden was lush, from leafy trees and boysenberry vines to lumpy grass-laden sod and a vast array of tulips waving in soft breezes. So many notions had accumulated, from friends to nature, welcoming a family home.
But it was at night when parents felt they truly had returned to their nest, once the house was locked, their daughter fast asleep. Eric then displayed to his wife how happy he was to be back within their residence, especially in their bedroom. Lynne usually fell asleep right after the couple made love, but Eric didn’t slip away to work; instead he watched her, sometimes brushing stray hairs from her face. He didn’t consider these moments were being stored up for later, he only pondered how wonderful was their life and how grateful he was to be cognizant of that fact. Much awaited outside their room, like telling their best friends about the baby, all the correspondence, and how many paintings Eric wished to begin. But most important was the woman beside him, the baby within her, and the child across the hall. When Eric fell asleep, he dreamed of those people as if not possessing enough conscious time to consider his treasures.
On Tuesday, Eric spent the early morning answering mail. He wanted to use the best light for painting, but so many letters waited, he felt guilty if not replying to at least a few. Lynne had told him not to worry about them, but Eric felt obligated to those with easily readable return addresses. He wrote ten notes, then his hand began to cramp. He smiled, stood from the table, then found his wife and daughter in the kitchen. Jane was in her high chair gnawing on apple slices while Lynne sat near her. Eric joined them, grasping his wife’s hand. So many emotions bubbled inside him, then he sighed. “There aren’t enough hours in the day for everything I wanna accomplish. What would you think if I hired a gardener?”
Lynne laughed. “If you find one that comes with a housekeeper, you’re on.” She gazed around the room. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that Renee and Sam did all that cleaning.” Then Lynne sniffled, reaching for a tissue in her apron pocket. She wiped her eyes, then blew her nose. “Oh my goodness,” she then chuckled. “This’s ridiculous.”
“Gonna be a long soppy pregnancy.” Eric smiled, kissing her damp cheek. He took a deep breath, then let it out. “So we’ll tell Marek on Thursday. When do you wanna tell….”
Before he could finish, Lynne shrugged, then started to weep. She leaned against Eric’s shoulder and he embraced her, all the while being stared at by Jane. She didn’t join in her mother’s tears, then grew bored, returning to her piece of apple. Eric smiled at both females, wondering how the next seven and a half months would proceed.
He imagined it might be much like this, with Jane not being bothered at her mother’s outbursts as long as food, drink, playtime, and naps were included. And hours spent posing, although Jane had squirmed in Lynne’s grasp. That task might take longer for Jane to reacclimatize to, but Eric wasn’t worried. He could sketch her on the run, then paint her later. Or maybe she would be happy to sit with her Uncle Marek, or her godparents. Or at least her godfather, and Eric sighed again. Unless the Aherns came over that night or tomorrow, Marek would be told about the baby before them.
As Lynne composed herself, Eric released her, feeling a strong paternal sensation. It was deeper than what he’d experienced when Lynne carried Jane, maybe it would increase with every child. Eric smiled at himself; how blessed were they to have one daughter, and now maybe two? Eric hadn’t considered a son, even for how emotional was his wife. But Eric didn’t ponder that issue. Instead he gave Jane another piece of apple, handing his wife a napkin. Her tissue had been balled up and placed on the table, making Eric wonder if he should invest in paper products. Lynne might go through a forest by the time January came.
While Lynne again blew her nose, Eric inhaled the sweetness of home; last month had shown him new and unique experiences, yet how good was it to be in this house, how wonderful was their simple life. Then he smiled at himself; needing a gardener, and maybe even a housekeeper, denoted a distinct change for the Snyders. Then a small shiver crept up Eric’s spine. Perhaps they could manage without help. Eric hadn’t changed form in well over a year and a half, but he couldn’t discount the possibility.
Now he sighed in weariness. Lynne looked his way, her red eyes attentive to his change in mood. “What?” she asked, caressing his face. “Eric, are you all right?”
He wanted to laugh at the absurdity of having forgotten a part of his existence that could never be omitted. For a few moments they were like any other family, well, a family that could afford such luxuries. Yes, they were indeed blessed, but it was balanced by a secret that while known by a few needed to remain concealed. In no way could Eric risk exposing that element of his life, and how fortunate that during the home renovations nothing had occurred. He leaned back in his chair, gripping Lynne’s hand. “I just realized how absurd is the idea of having a gardener or a cleaning lady.” He grimaced, then released Lynne’s hand. “Sometimes I forget, you know, like it doesn’t happen anymore, like it won’t ever occur again.” He stood, feeling slightly shamed. Then he looked at his wife. “I can’t count on it not and the last thing we need is someone here who’d….” Now Eric laughed. “They’d run away screaming, but eventually come back with a posse. We’d never have any peace.”
Eric could envision such a disturbance, like witch hunts from medieval times. No walls would be high enough, and the safety of his family was paramount. He walked to the kitchen doorway, gazing at the stacks of letters. People from Europe had found him, he wasn’t anonymous. Was that a mistake? Perhaps he should have remained unidentified. Now it was too late, unless he and Lynne moved to a deserted island. Those who loved them would understand, even Stanford and Laurie. But no one could live alone, bringing Seth to Eric’s mind. Maybe for now he was better off in Florida. Those people were objective compared to his family in Brooklyn.
Never having possessed relatives other than his wife, Eric hadn’t worried about being discovered. And maybe all this fretting was for nothing, for it had been ages since Eric had changed into a hawk. But now he needed to take care, for while his pastor knew, and the Aherns, the public needed to remain ignorant. That public wasn’t merely fans of his work, but the average local who spotted him at the market, their friends at St. Matthew’s, even those related to Sam and Renee. How would Lynne explain to Fran and Louie, or to Joan and Russell? How could any of it be understood?
Eric sighed again, but as he exhaled, Lynne grasped his hand. “I love you. So far we’ve managed to keep you under the radar.”
He nodded. “Yeah, but now everything’s different.”
“It is, but not for the worse. We have people in our life, family we never expected.” Lynne placed his hand on her flat belly. “Someday we’ll have to tell Jane and this baby. And if someday we need to inform others, we’ll find a way to do so delicately.”
Eric looked at her. “Delicately huh? That’s a funny way to put it.”
“How else could you tell Stanford?” Lynne wore a sly grin. “Not that I can think of any situation where he’d need to know, but maybe. In the meantime, you’re right about hired help.” Lynne giggled. “It was a nice idea though.”
“Yeah, it was.” Eric shrugged, then smiled. “You’re gonna be so busy, how will I find time to paint you?”
He placed his other hand between her breasts, then set both of his hands on her hips, making her giggle again. The kiss began as she grew still, and they only broke apart due to Jane’s squawking.
They laughed, turning her way, finding her banging on an empty tray. Lynne set another piece of apple in front of the toddler, then returned to her husband’s embrace, only leaving Eric’s arms when Jane hollered for more food.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Eric left the studio, finding Renee and Lynne in tears together in the sunroom. Neither woman tried to hide their wet faces, but Eric sensed their moods weren’t connected to a baby still under wraps. Dressed in work clothes, Renee gripped Eric’s hands, then cleared her throat. “I just stopped by to issue an invite. Sam’s been busy with the vets, but he wants to fix dinner for everyone. Lynne says you’re free on Saturday, and Sam’s dying for some of that peach pie.”
Eric nodded, then hugged Renee. As they broke apart, Eric smiled. “Peach pie you say? Yeah, I think Lynne can rustle up one of those.”
Lynne smirked at him; she was making one tomorrow morning for Marek. Then Lynne motioned upstairs. Eric wasn’t sure if Renee had planned to see Jane that day, but the baby was quiet, and Eric didn’t want to upset the moment. He was so pleased to have Renee back in this home, but a key element of Eric’s family was missing. Then he took a deep breath; would news of the coming baby again set off Renee? As he exhaled, he could hear faint squeals that quickly grew loud. Eric glanced at his wife, Lynne gazing toward the living room stairs. She began walking from the sunroom, then Renee turned to follow.
“Do you mind if I go with you?” Renee asked.
Lynne stopped at the doorway, facing her friend. Upon his wife’s face Eric noted slight uncertainty. Then she smiled, grasping Renee’s hands. “Of course. Although she sounds pretty cranky.”
Renee nodded, then gazed at her shoes. Then she went to Lynne’s side. “I suppose she won’t remember me, but….”
Eric joined them, tenderly putting his arm around Renee. “You might be in for a surprise. Let’s go see.”
The trio took the stairs and by the time they reached the nursery, Jane was screaming. Lynne entered, followed by Eric, then Renee. As Jane spotted her parents, she stopped crying, then stared at the extra person in the room. Lynne lifted Jane from the crib while Eric moved back, still with paint on his hands. Renee remained still, arms at her sides. Lynne spoke softly to Jane, that Auntie Renee was there to see her, yet Lynne didn’t offer the baby toward Renee.
In those fleeting moments, Eric so wished for a sketch pad and pencil, yet he accepted that not every event needed documentation. Very slowly Renee extended her right arm, her fingertips almost, but not quite, reaching Jane’s hair, which now hung to her shoulders. Lynne had been uncertain whether or not to let it keep growing or to trim it now. Eric liked the idea of long hair, but that was the artist in him. He didn’t have to wash Jane’s tresses or comb them out.
Now Renee stepped closer to mother and daughter, but she remained silent. Jane babbled, having had a good rest. Lynne was the only one to speak, that Auntie Renee had been very busy, and of course Jane had been on vacation. Lynne didn’t imply any more than that and Jane didn’t seem bothered, for she smiled and cooed, then began leaning toward Renee, her chubby arms outstretched. Eric breathed very quietly, wondering what Renee would do.
Jane seemed perfectly aware of who Renee was, which didn’t shock Eric. She had quickly taken to Laurie, then Stanford, and when the family returned from Queens, Jane acted as if Uncle Laurie should have gone with them. It had been several weeks since Jane had last seen Renee, but as Jane continued reaching for her godmother, it was apparent that no distance would keep this little girl from a woman deeply entwined within Jane’s life. Finally Renee collected Jane, at first holding her as if Jane had a messy diaper. She might, Eric allowed, but he didn’t smell anything unpleasant.
It took a few seconds, but soon Jane was set upon Renee’s left hip. Then Renee readjusted her grasp, pulling Jane upwards where they could look into each other’s eyes. Now Eric was dying for pencil and paper, but he hoped his memory would suffice. Jane was lost in Renee’s enigmatic irises, just as Renee was hypnotized by a little girl’s blue eyes. They were still the same color as Sam’s, Eric smiled to himself, but he wasn’t sure if that was why Renee stared so intently into Jane’s face.
Eric wouldn’t hesitate to guess, too many issues from which to choose. He simply appreciated how closely Renee held his daughter and the loving words she now couldn’t keep back; how pretty Jane was, how big she’d gotten. How long was her lovely hair, how strong was her grasp, as Jane had grabbed a fistful of Renee’s hair. As Lynne pried loose Jane’s hand from Renee’s tresses, Renee merely chuckled, noting that Jane liked bright colors. Then Renee stroked Jane’s cheek, noting how blue were the baby’s eyes. “The exact same color as Sam’s,” she said quietly. “But then I told him they weren’t gonna change.”
Her tone was brassy but tender and Eric’s heart thumped in his chest. He gazed at Lynne, tears falling down her face. He knew what she ached to say, but perhaps not yet. This moment was for Renee and Jane. Maybe on Saturday night the Snyders would tell the Aherns that another baby was on the way. Best to inform Marek first, Eric decided, nodding at his wife who wiped her face, also nodding her head.
Renee didn’t see Lynne’s gesture, still staring at Jane. Eric stepped their way, standing beside his daughter, who didn’t do more than glance at him. Jane was fascinated by Renee’s eyes, reaching for them. Renee laughed, then sighed. “She sees my crows’ feet, poor girl. It’s been so long since….”
“She sees the most intriguing eyes I’ve ever painted,” Eric interrupted. “Although, I will say I think I’ve done them justice.”
Renee looked at Eric. “I think Pastor Jagucki’s eyes are more interesting than mine.”
Eric chuckled as Jane laughed with him. “Well maybe, but not the shade.” Eric kept his voice light, but was caught off guard by Renee’s statement. “If nothing else, I highly doubt I’ll ever paint eyes the same color as yours.”
“Well yeah, probably not.” Renee now gazed at Jane. “But hers are just like Sam’s. I’ll tell him that tonight.” She smiled, then kissed Jane’s cheek. “He’ll be glad I stopped by, inviting you all to dinner. Oh, Fran and Louie are coming too, I forgot to mention that.”
“Well, Lynne might need to make two pies then.” Eric looked at his wife, who had composed herself, although her face showed concern. Did they want to tell the Canfields at the same time as the Aherns? Eric wasn’t sure he wanted to tell Renee without Sam being present. Maybe the Snyders could pop over to the Aherns on Friday, or Eric could call Sam tomorrow while Renee was working, or….
Before Eric could decide, Lynne had reached for Renee’s left hand. Silently the news was shared as Lynne placed Renee’s palm where the new baby rested. Eric watched as Lynne nodded at Renee, who made no sounds, but she trembled. Eric’s hands weren’t clean, but he was prepared to catch his daughter if Renee happened to drop her. Then Renee began to nod, her sniffles apparent. Wordlessly she handed Jane to her father, then seemed to fall into Lynne’s waiting embrace. Eric stepped toward the clinging women, both in tears just like he had found them in the sunroom. But this time a different tenor arose, that of apologies extended and forgiveness proffered. And as Eric bobbed Jane in his arms, those sentiments weren’t simply from Renee to Lynne, although Eric didn’t feel Lynne needed to apologize, unless she felt the timing was amiss. Eric wasn’t sure when would have been best, then he glanced at his wife, who caught his gaze. Call Sam, Lynne mouthed. Eric nodded, then headed downstairs, Jane jabbering in his grasp.
When Sam arrived, he rushed through the front gate, nearly running to the house. He was at first surprised that Renee had stopped at the Snyders, he truly hadn’t expected her to run that errand. It had been more of a small seed planted, that one day she’d be able to visit there on her own. But Eric’s news about another baby had caused Sam to drive at somewhat high speed. As he reached the kitchen door, he didn’t knock, bursting into the house unannounced. Everyone was seated around the table, although Jane was in her high chair, laughing at what Sam wasn’t sure. Lynne looked teary, Renee’s face was a red, splotchy mess. Eric wore paint-spattered clothes, but the mood wasn’t subdued as Sam had feared. Eric stood, coming to where Sam had been stopped in his tracks. The Snyders were having another baby, although it was early days. Yet Sam couldn’t think negatively. As Eric sought an embrace, Sam complied. Then Sam went to where Renee still sat, on Lynne’s left. He knelt by his wife, stroking her wet face. Her eyes were bloodshot, but looked to be free of pain. His heart throbbed, for this was so much coming on how hard she had wept not that long ago in this very kitchen. Was this news too much for her, Sam wondered, kissing her cheek, then grasping her hands, which were warm to the touch. She nodded at him, her mouth quivering, yet not in anguish. Closing his eyes, Sam prayed that Renee could take this on board gently. She was still so vulnerable, he felt, as he opened his eyes, finding more tears falling along her face. Yet she smiled at him, nodding her head like she knew what he had just set before Christ. Eric put a chair near Sam and Sam sat in it. Then he looked around the room, taking a deep breath. Not two weeks ago he had wondered if Renee would ever be able to stand in here, much less around the Snyders, who were now expecting a second child. Then Sam gazed at Jane; she had been asleep when he’d collected this family from the airport and he hadn’t gotten a good look at her. Her hair was so long, he thought, then he found himself lost in her eyes. The color hadn’t altered; in all probability she would keep those kingfisher peepers. Then Sam stared at Lynne; what color eyes would the next child possess?
She met his gaze with a wide smile, then a hint of apology. Sam grinned, still grasping Renee’s hands. “Well congratulations are in order I do believe.” His voice was soft, but joyful. He had no idea what Renee might have said, but it couldn’t have been bad, for they were seated together as if the last year was…. It was over, Sam felt, as Lynne nodded while Renee gripped Sam’s hands with a loving, necessary pressure. Last year was behind all of them as Eric pulled up the chair on Lynne’s other side, sitting next to her, putting his arm around her while Jane babbled in the background. There might not be any coffee or pie waiting, but for the first time in many months, Sam felt all was right in the world, and where else would be better than in this house where a part of him had been revitalized. All the healing he’d earned when Jane was born wasn’t gone, as Sam had so feared while the losses had mounted. He took a deep breath, feeling no tightness in his chest, only great freedom. As he exhaled, he wanted to laugh. Instead he smiled, gripping his wife in his right arm, then meeting Eric’s gaze. “So, when’s the baby due?”
“Next January.” Eric chuckled, then kissed Lynne’s cheek. “Probably around the middle of the month. Jane won’t quite be two, but….”
“But that’s good,” Renee warbled. Then she cleared her throat. “They’ll be close in age, plus Jane will never remember being an only child.”
“Yeah, we didn’t wanna put too much space between them.” Eric looked at Sam. “We only found out for certain last week. We were gonna tell you on Saturday, but….”
Eric’s voice trailed off, which Sam thought was fine. It didn’t need to be stated why the Aherns were only learning now, but now was better than on Saturday in front of the Canfields. Then Sam wondered who else knew; were the New Yorkers aware, or Marek Jagucki? Maybe Laurie and Stanford, Sam allowed, probably not Marek. Sam wanted to ask, then wished to kick himself. Then he sighed as Renee blew her nose. It was enough that his wife was in that room with such wonderful news being shared. It was terrific, Sam felt utterly pleased for Eric and Lynne. And for Jane, who Sam ached to hold. She looked so much bigger, not the baby he remembered from last month. And in just a few months, another would arrive, making her seem even more grown-up. Then Sam found himself detaching the high chair tray, lifting Jane from that seat. She clapped her hands and squealed as Sam put her on his lap. She was heavier than he recalled, but she happily leaned against him like she knew this man had been a part of her entire life. Again Sam closed his eyes, but this time his petition was less clear. It centered on children, happiness, and completion. When Sam opened his eyes, he saw Renee staring at Jane, who gripped Renee’s fingers. Renee’s smile was beatific and Sam’s pulse raced. Could this kind of life actually be possible for them?
Usually chatter would accompany these sorts of gatherings, but no one spoke, other than Jane, but her language was garbled. Yet it carried a distinct purpose, like she was reintroducing herself to her godmother, this version of Eric and Lynne’s offspring not the same as Renee knew previously. Now Jane was on her way to becoming someone’s big sister, she had traveled across the country, she was so seasoned. Sam smiled, thinking of her in that manner. Her longer tresses weren’t those of an infant, and how she chuckled was richer, like she had gained valuable insights in New York City. Sam looked at her parents, still nestled against each other. Eric and Lynne looked altered too, in part from the coming baby, but in another manner which eluded Sam. He wanted to ask Eric what else was different, had they learned something about Seth, or was it from one of the many letters Eric had received, or had Stanford said something about the European exhibit? Then Sam realized how much time had passed since all five of them had been together without any clouds to darken the skies. Suddenly Sam felt young, or at least not as old as he’d been feeling. Maybe he wasn’t too old to experience what Eric and Lynne knew, and would soon know again. Maybe there was still time for him and Renee to….
“Here, give her to me.” Renee’s tone was soft but insistent, and Sam handed Jane to her godmother. The little girl cuddled against Renee, who tenderly kissed the top of Jane’s head. Then Sam glanced at Eric, who wore a grateful smile. The same look rested on Lynne’s face, as if they felt just like Sam did. Maybe for all of them the last year was a time of testing, albeit not so hard on the Snyders as on the Aherns. Or maybe Sam had it wrong, for Eric and Lynne had endured sleepless nights with an infant, as well as Lynne having lost touch with Renee. Sam didn’t feel Jane had suffered for her godmother’s absence. But as that girl settled in Renee’s grasp, she seemed to be reclaiming that spot within Renee’s heart. Renee crooned to Jane how much she was loved, how beautiful she was, and what a good big sister she would be. As Renee spoke those words, Sam leaned over, stroking his wife’s hair. He needed to touch her, like she required a shield. She met his gaze, her smile still shining. There was much Sam wanted to say to her, that he loved her, was so proud of her, and how much he’d missed her. This was the woman he had married, the woman Renee had been before Sam left for Korea.
This woman’s heart was unfettered, her smile free. This woman loved holding little ones, her softness and warmth fully exposed, also replenished by the reciprocation. It had been so many years since Sam had viewed Renee in this manner, he’d forgotten how easily she used to tote a baby, how readily she had changed diapers or fed bottles to tiny children. Their initial plan had been for Renee to work while Sam found a restaurant where his skills would flourish. They would start a family, then Renee would raise their children as Sam brought home the bacon. Maybe that was similar to how Eric and Lynne had assumed their marriage would progress, although his time as a hawk would always intrude. Sam wasn’t expecting a miracle; Renee would never have his baby. But maybe now they could explore what kind of family they might create. He scooted closer to her and she reclined fully against him, Jane starting to doze in Renee’s grasp. And for the first time, Sam realized they had never sat this way with Jane, never been so near one another, with no fears or pains between them. Sam detected no anxiety or ache from Renee, just the most loving woman he had ever known resting alongside him. He stroked her shoulder and she nodded her head as if acknowledging the same.
He winced, then sighed. She wasn’t the only one who had altered and he hoped they could talk about it, maybe later that night, or at least before Saturday. On Saturday, Sam was certain, the Snyders’ news would be shared with the Canfields. But before then, Sam needed to again apologize to his wife for having made her wait so long. He wouldn’t openly mention children, only note that he’d put distance between them, and for that Sam was still sorry. She felt so good in his arms, how could he have consciously disallowed this part of loving her? Perhaps Renee wasn’t the only one who needed counseling. Maybe, Sam pondered, he would benefit from some as well.
“So, do you two have plans for dinner?” Eric’s voice broke the stillness and Sam met that man’s eyes. Eric’s smile was playful, then he laughed. “Not that we do, other than maybe sandwiches and canned soup. But it’s already after six and I’m starving and it’d be downright rude to eat in front of you without offering some grub.”
Renee turned to face her husband. “I’m hungry honey. Why don’t you see what you can rustle up?”
Sam smiled, in part from Renee’s tone; she sounded so young. Sam wondered if Eric or Lynne noticed, maybe Sam was the only one to tell. Slowly he nodded, then stood. “Lynne, you mind if I make some dinner?”
She giggled. “Not at all. Just toast for me actually.”
Now Sam chuckled. “Well that’s easy enough. Sandwiches for the rest?”
Renee nodded and Eric shot up his hand. “I’ll go wash, then you can put me to work.” Eric stood, then headed for the laundry room. “I know there’s tomato soup in the cupboard, I’d love some of that.”
Sam stepped to where Lynne kept her canned goods, pulling tins from the shelf. When Eric returned, Sam had two pots on the stove, lunchmeats and cheese on the counter. While the men fixed dinner, the women had pulled their chairs together. Renee still held Jane, but Lynne’s soft tone emerged, the conversation not one Sam needed to note. He was there, his wife not far, with their godchild on her lap. Then Sam wondered if they might be asked to be godparents again. He smiled at himself, a question for much later. Eric patted Sam’s shoulder while the women made chit-chat. Jane however was quiet, resting in the safety of her auntie’s arms.
A Polish pastor was thrilled for news of an impending parishioner, how Marek had jovially congratulated the Snyders’ on Thursday evening. That night was split between tales of New York and Queens alongside intriguing letters from across the Atlantic Ocean. Lynne teased that now Eric had more post to answer, but Eric didn’t mind, and Marek was happy to translate notes that were written in languages he hadn’t encountered in years. His French was quite rusty, he lamented, but his German was still sharp, and much of the correspondence was from West Germany. Most of that was written in English, but a few messages had been offered in a language that for a long while Marek had only read or spoken under duress. He held no prejudices against the German people, but he couldn’t avoid slight angst when encountering that tongue.
No Ukrainian or Hungarian notes waited; those countries weren’t on the tour. Since Eric had come home, a few letters had arrived from Holland, where the paintings now were. Marek’s Dutch was minimal, but he provided what insights he could muster. He found the Snyders were somewhat ignorant about European geography, well, they knew little about the smaller countries. Then Marek smiled at himself; his knowledge of the American West Coast had been non-existent until he moved here. As Lynne served peach pie, he savored these simple pleasures, also relishing that this couple was expecting another child. They had also noted the Aherns were aware, and how well Renee had taken the news. Marek’s heart had been lifted by that information and he left the Snyder home with an overall sense of joy. He had missed these people and not only on Sunday mornings. Another dinner was slated for next week, but at St. Matthew’s. Marek wished to reciprocate, especially with Lynne feeling slightly unwell. Although, he had chuckled as he took his leave, pie was always appreciated.
Lynne made two more pies on Saturday, peach and pumpkin. The Snyders arrived at the Aherns before the Canfields, but Eric didn’t mention to Sam anything about painting that man’s portrait. They talked about the Queens’ sketches, that Seth was still in Florida, and baseball. As the women spoke in the kitchen, Sam led Eric to the back yard. A big pot of spaghetti sauce was simmering, and Sam didn’t want to leave it for long, but he needed to ask Eric if something had occurred in New York. The notion of change for the Snyders seemed to reverberate beyond the coming baby, Sam still felt, although he hadn’t mentioned it to Renee. All she wanted to talk about was how much Jane had grown, how wonderful it was that Lynne was pregnant again, and how glad she was that the Snyders were home. Sam relished those conversations, but with Eric he needed resolution concerning a different topic.
Eric began to make small talk and Sam permitted an exchange about the warm spring weather. Then Sam cleared this throat; the sauce was waiting, plus the Canfields were due any time. “So Eric, is there something else going on, I mean, besides the new baby?”
As soon as Sam spoke, he felt awkward, not only for how he had changed the subject, but that Eric didn’t immediately meet Sam’s gaze. For a few seconds, Sam felt sick inside; had Seth’s health taken a turn or was Stanford again feeling out of sorts? Then Sam took a deep breath as Eric looked his way. The last year hadn’t only been hard on the Aherns. Of course it had been terrible for Frannie and her family, but others had suffered too. Sam watched how Eric cracked his knuckles, then sighed heavily. Sam couldn’t imagine what might make this man appear so glum.
Everything in Eric’s life seemed fine. Of course until after the fourth of July, the Snyders would wonder if the baby would be all right. But that was a small consideration, Sam reflected, then he crossed his arms over his chest. Maybe it wasn’t so small; Lynne was creeping into her mid-thirties and one could never guess the future. The European tour was going well, or Sam assumed it was. Had something happened, or…. Sam didn’t want to think about Seth. “Eric, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” Sam spoke quickly. Maybe they could forget he even brought it up. Gazing back toward the kitchen window, Sam wondered if Renee was stirring the sauce. Maybe she was greeting Fran, Louie, and the kids, although that welcome would probably have carried to where Sam and Eric still stood. But now Eric nodded at Sam. Sam steeled himself; whatever Eric said, Sam would listen.
As Eric began to speak, Sam took several deep breaths, for Eric’s tone was plaintive, yet his subject was otherworldly, as if Sam’s best friend was a man split in two. The Eric Snyder who left for New York had returned as a being part human, part hawk. Or at least Eric had to accept that his existence wasn’t fully that of a mere man. Not that Eric felt imminent change was approaching, but even if he hadn’t altered in over eighteen months, that transformation could occur at any time.
Sam forgot all about the sauce and his sister; Eric continued to ramble and Sam paid attention like Eric was another vet trying to make sense of the most implausible situation. This wasn’t the tone of a talented and successful painter, nor was it the voice of a husband and father. This was the anguish of a man literally torn in half and Sam had to bite his tongue several times, not wishing to denote how much was Eric like those who Sam counseled on a semi-regular basis. Then Sam wondered if he wasn’t the only one who realized these similarities; did Marek Jagucki acknowledge them? Maybe not, Marek probably hadn’t had much experience with soldiers during the war. But Marek had known a rather special hawk and Sam filed that away, perhaps he would very delicately inquire about it if Eric’s malaise continued. Eric definitely exuded some level of distress, although it was alleviated by all the blessings he possessed. As small children’s squeals filtered into Sam’s ears, it was those treasures about which Eric spoke, halting the men’s conversation in a place that Sam felt was apt. Suddenly they were surrounded by Canfield kids, then Fran, Louie, Lynne, and Renee joined, Renee toting Jane, who squirmed to be set down. Helene hollered for the same and finally Renee complied. As two little girls were reunited, Eric shook hands with Louie, then hugged Sam’s sister. Sam studied their faces; they didn’t yet know about the coming baby. But by evening’s end, that news would be disseminated. Yet what Eric had shared with Sam would remain concealed, although Sam was certain Lynne knew her husband’s misgivings. Sam wouldn’t reveal them to Renee, she had enough to think about already. And as he watched her dote on Jane and Helene, then Johnny and Brad, Sam had to smile. Blessings did abound, it was a matter of concentrating on them while managing the less stellar parts of life.
The evening ended on a joyful note as Eric announced the Snyders’ news. Neither he nor Lynne felt it was too early, plus Lynne had spent considerable time in the Aherns’ bathroom, retching loudly. Fran and Louie were thrilled for the couple, their children excited as well. Sally offered to babysit and Lynne accepted those services. When the Canfields said goodnight, Lynne and Frannie exchanged a long embrace. Fran’s few tears were of the happy kind and Lynne wept too, both women chuckling as they wiped their faces.
After that family departed, the Aherns’ home seemed depleted, although Jane fussed some, what with all of her playmates gone. Jane snuggled against Renee, who had held that girl whenever possible, but now the baby was ready for sleep, as was her mother. Yet Lynne didn’t wish to leave; it had been so long since the Snyders had enjoyed an evening at this home. Lynne couldn’t even recall the last time they had shared a meal here; she closed her eyes, but didn’t concentrate on that elusive date. Instead Lynne absorbed the voices around her, appreciating the camaraderie.
Renee’s tone was different; she sounded younger, and Lynne would ask Eric if he noticed it too. Sam also sounded rejuvenated; Lynne so hoped the couple were reconsidering adoption, but unless Renee brought it up, Lynne would say nothing about that subject. The women were almost back to their usual closeness, which had surprised Lynne for how quickly that footing had been reestablished. But Lynne didn’t wish to rush this along. As she opened her eyes, she saw her best friend with Jane cuddled close, the baby nearly asleep. Lynne yawned, then smiled. Jane knew that after her own home, this was the next best place to be.
Eric patted Lynne’s shoulder; all she would have to do is nod her head and he would make their excuses, which weren’t truly necessary. Other than if the Aherns were thinking about making a family, nothing was unknown between them, and Lynne sighed in pleasure, deeply contented by the reunion. She had missed these people greatly, had tried not to think about it. It was similar to missing Eric when he’d been away for a few days at a time, or at least how she thought about it now. Now those four days a few times a year would seem like child’s play.
Then she shivered; Eric was thinking about the same issue, albeit in a different manner. Yet it had been on both of their minds and Lynne wondered if it was due to the coming baby, or did Eric feel a departure was indeed imminent? She looked at him; he was chatting animatedly with Sam about all the European mail. At first those letters had been an ego boost, but upon reflection, they had exposed a reality from which Eric couldn’t hide. Maybe the last year and a half, without a single incident occurring, had lulled them into a false sense of security. Perhaps they should be more cognizant, or maybe that wasn’t how to live this life, assuming the worst. Lynne’s faith asked her to consider the best, to expect miracles. The baby she now carried was yet another gift, and she began to cry. She nestled against Eric, not that she needed to conceal these tears from their friends. Lynne needed her husband, but if he again went away, she would make do.
“About time to take someone home.” Eric’s tone was tender. He kissed the top of her head, but didn’t move. Lynne breathed deeply, wanting to fully grasp this moment. She had her husband, a child inside her, their daughter in the arms of a woman Lynne considered as a sister, and another man so close to Lynne’s family. Before she hadn’t possessed enough vision to appreciate these intangibles, but faith had widened her vista. She looked up, then smiled at Sam and Renee. They nodded as if aware. Then Lynne gazed at her daughter. Jane was fast asleep, snoring even. Lynne giggled, then wiped her face. She wanted to go home, put Jane in her crib, then fall into bed next to her husband. What more to life was there than that?
Within half an hour, those notions had come to pass. Lynne and Eric snuggled under their covers, having made a hasty but satisfying love. She’d said nothing on the drive home, but as he’d gripped her hand, Eric seemed to know her desires. Now as slumber teased, Lynne said snatches of half-formed prayers while trying to remain conscious enough to file this moment into her memories. But sleep overcame her and soon she was snoring.
When she woke, Lynne immediately listened for Jane, but the house was quiet. Eric’s side of the bed was empty and Lynne found his sheets were cool. She used the toilet, put on her robe and slippers, then stepped from their bedroom. Gripping the railing on the landing, Lynne wished to call out for him, but didn’t want to stir Jane. Hearing nothing, Lynne went downstairs, where outside a large moon illuminated the patio. She stepped to the French doors, then spied her husband seated at the table with what looked to be a sketch pad in his hand.
Lynne opened the door, making Eric turn her way. “You okay?” he said softly, going to his feet. As she nodded, he met her just past the door. Eric stroked her face, but his hands were cool. He was dressed in his robe, but Lynne wondered how long he’d been outside.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, still caressing her face. “It’s warm out and the moon was just gorgeous, thought I’d try a different sort of drawing. Never done anything so dark, not that I have time to paint more than what’s already waiting, but….”
Lynne kissed him and Eric responded eagerly. Then he broke away, but pulled her right against him. She nodded as he leaned his head on her shoulder, then she stroked his hair. Maybe how young the Aherns seemed that evening had triggered something within Eric, bringing him back to when his and Lynne’s lives were so unpredictable. Now they were downright staid compared to those earlier days, but nothing remained static. “Honey, have you felt something?”
She had wanted to ask, but hadn’t wished to pester him. Like Renee, Eric needed time to process whatever he felt might be coming. He stood away from his wife, but Lynne couldn’t easily see his face, the moonlight behind him. He didn’t nod his head either, but he set his palm along her cheek as if silently giving his assent. Lynne shivered, but in part from a sudden breeze. If he did go away, she wouldn’t rue his absence as in days past.
“I just feel like so what if I paint Agatha’s family, or Sam even. What does any of that mean if I’m away from all of you?” Eric placed his hand on Lynne’s flat belly. “It’s been so long and sometimes I have forgotten it all. Even in New York I wasn’t thinking about it, so much to do and see and….” He stepped so close to her that Lynne could nearly hear the pounding of his heart. “Maybe I’m being ridiculous, because no, I haven’t felt a single thing. And I mean that honey. It’s all here.” He tapped the side of his head. Then he sighed. “And here.” He gently patted his wife’s abdomen. “I don’t wanna miss any of this, not like I did with Jane.”
Lynne wanted to note that those few weeks were ones she never considered. Yet she understood his fear. She didn’t want him away either. “I love you. I’m sorry this’s so troubling.”
He sighed again, then shrugged, removing his hand from her. Then he faced the moon. “How many nights have I been away from you, sleeping God knows where under this same light, or in complete darkness, and yeah, I’ve come home every time, but….” He faced his wife. “Now it’s not just you and me. My God Lynne, I’m so happy about this baby, I tried to be subdued tonight, but it was hard because I love you and this’s all we’ve wanted. I looked at Sam and Renee tonight, Fran and Louie, aware of all they’ve lost, and then saw you or Jane, and I wondered why God have you given Lynne and me so much, but these others have had to suffer so deeply?”
Now Lynne stroked her husband’s face. “We’ve suffered too.” Then she smiled. “I don’t have any more of an answer than that.”
He nodded, placing his hand over hers. “I know and I thought about that too, I mean, nothing in life’s equal, and maybe all my caterwauling doesn’t make sense. It’s just that in New York, I didn’t have time to think about all this; all I wanted was to get home to paint you, Sam, Queens. And Stan and Laurie.” Eric had a quiet chuckle. “I know how I wanna paint them, but I need them here. Later in summer, I suppose. I guess I’m just complaining about nothing,” he then sighed. “I want it all, but I have it all right in front of me.” He grasped Lynne’s hands, then kissed the backs of them. Then he set a tender kiss along her face. “I don’t wanna miss a single moment of this pregnancy, I just wanna be here to paint you, make love to you, teach Jane whatever she needs to know. I wanna go hiking this summer,” he added with a laugh. “I know that’s the last thing you probably want, but I was thinking about that tonight. Sam sounded so young, made me remember how much hiking we used to do years before.”
As Eric spoke, Lynne chuckled. But when he said before, she stopped; his voice was wistful, like they never would get around to that activity. She gripped him and he grasped her with vigor. Yet for the first time in recent memory, these embraces carried a hint of anxiety. Lynne closed her eyes, feeling Eric’s face along hers. As he told her how much he loved and needed her, she nodded her head, praying for a calm heart. They remained in those positions until a stiff wind arose, blowing Eric’s sketch pad and pencil from the patio table. Eric retrieved them, then led his wife inside, where again love was made, followed by fitful sleep for both.
Holding a drink in his left hand, Seth stared at the assembled guests. Sheila’s Aunt Deb had organized this party and Seth was attending under duress. He sipped the scotch, needing a fairly strong dose of alcohol to remain. If he got drunk, maybe his aunt and uncle might feel inclined to leave early. If nothing else, if Seth was inebriated, he could easily slip into a quiet room and fall asleep.
He stood in a corner as the rest mingled in the living room and out on the screened-in back porch. There were probably thirty people and he knew only a few of them. This was a younger set than whom Seth usually associated, although he was still one of the youngest. None of Sheila’s eldest relatives were here, other than her Aunt Deb and Uncle David, who were the evening’s hosts. After one drink, Seth had chatted amiably with David Myerson for about five minutes, then David had moved to greet another guest and Seth had poured himself another glass while Sheila and Mickey cozied up to their usual cliques. Women sat on one side of the living room, men on the other, and Seth wondered if eventually the groups would gravitate to either the interior or exterior of the house. Seth enjoyed observing the scene, especially now that he felt the effects of the scotch. He’d never been a drinker, nor was he now inclined to consider using booze to soothe his pain. But it was nice, just for that evening, to allow a shield. Sheila had insisted that he attend, and now he understood why; most of the women were his age, or at least weren’t old enough to be his mother.
Yet they were all his elder, so maybe Sheila had decided Seth required a more mature partner. That thought made him smile, but he didn’t feel at all like walking up to any of them and making small talk. The little he’d spoken to Uncle David was all Seth felt like sharing. And now he couldn’t even recall what they’d said, maybe something about the weather? Seth took another sip, then he gripped the tumbler. Maybe it was time to go back to Brooklyn. The Snyders were long gone from New York, and how many more cocktail parties would Sheila badger Seth into attending? He was tired, and maybe a little tipsy. He wasn’t at all interested in anything anyone here had to say, gossip and politics mixed with news from Israel. He was bored with the same conversations, whether they were spoken in English or Yiddish. He smiled again, tracing the rim of his glass. Perhaps there was no further reason to stay in Miami.
He could look into booking a flight home as early as tomorrow; it might appear as an insult to his aunt, but Seth was weary of her attempts at playing matchmaker, and Eric was gone, and…. Then Seth sighed. The blue barn no longer resided in New York and if he went home without that painting to admire, what would he do? His mother wouldn’t demand anything of him other than the usual household chores, Aunt Rose would request his assistance only if one of her sons-in-law were busy. Seth didn’t consider Laurie; being away from his cousin had been a relief, although the distance was also difficult. Seth missed Laurie, but what in the hell was the purpose of going home, Seth mused, finishing his drink, then wondering if he should get another. He gazed at the bottom of the glass, only a trace of liquid remaining. He swirled it, then looked up. A woman across the room was staring at him.
She wore a long sleeved dress, although the fabric looked somewhat sheer. Yet it had been warm that day, the humidity high. All the other women either wore sleeveless frocks or those with cap sleeves. This woman’s hair was loose, a dark color, all he could tell from where he stood. She looked older than him, but as she blinked, then cast a vague smile his way, maybe she was seventeen. Somehow her long sleeves indicated youth, whereas usually the opposite was true.
He placed his glass on a nearby table. Then he smiled at her as she lit a cigarette. Seth was one of the few who didn’t smoke, but he didn’t mind. Cigarettes had been prevalent in the army, at the hospital in Vermont, and at Caffey-Miller. His father had smoked a pipe, but his mother and sisters had eschewed tobacco, as had Laurie’s family. Then Seth glanced at his aunt and uncle. They were about the only ones not smoking. Maybe it was a Miami habit, he grinned. People here smoked to forget about the incessant sunshine.
He’d found that aspect of the weather rather draining, even if it was the season for it. Snowbirds must truly hate winter to retire here, he considered, finding the woman still looking at him. She wasn’t trying to hide her interest and even from far away, Seth found her attractive. She seemed mysterious, what with those long sleeves and her ageless face. He squinted, then smiled broadly. Perhaps Aunt Sheila had finally found success, or at least Seth would let her claim this victory.
Slowly he made his way around groups of men, standing in circles talking loudly. The women were seated, all but the one who still gazed at Seth. He paused about ten feet from where she stood, David Myerson seeking his attention. Calmly Seth permitted this intrusion, although David seemed to have nothing of significance to tell him. It was like David was stalling for time. Seth didn’t gaze in the woman’s direction, but could feel how badly she wished to speak to him. Equally David acted as if keeping them apart was vital. Maybe Seth was too old for her, perhaps she was just a teenager. He tried to glance her way, but from what he could see, she no longer stood against the wall.
Seth ached inside, which surprised him. For the first time in a long time, he wanted to investigate something other than…. He chuckled at himself, as well as the joke David told, then Seth excused himself. David tried to keep him there, but Seth gingerly patted David’s shoulder. Turning away, Seth saw that indeed the woman had stepped away, but he wasn’t troubled. She had simply removed herself from the group so that when Seth found her, they wouldn’t be bothered by anyone.
He used the bathroom, then slipped into the kitchen where a few women did dishes. He didn’t know them and they kept right on talking. Seth had only been to the Myersons’ a few times, wasn’t sure of the home’s layout beyond the living room, bathroom, and the back porch. He exited the house through the front door, then walked to the street. The night was dark, although streetlights illuminated sections of the sidewalk. Other homes were well-lit, it wasn’t that late, and cars lined the street. Then Seth heard someone cough. He turned around, seeing the woman standing near a tree just at the edge of where light shone from overhead.
In the dark, he couldn’t tell more than it was her. Yet he could sense how much she wanted to speak to him, as if they had been standing side by side within the living room, yet forcibly kept apart by David. Seth walked in her direction, clearing his throat. As he reached her, he smiled, some part of his soul revived by this enigmatic female.
It had been years since Seth had slept with anyone; sex had no place in his life due to depression. But he felt very aroused now, which made him stifle a chuckle. In the dim light, he could see the woman’s face and she looked just as pleased for his presence. She also appeared older than him, lines around her mouth and eyes, also creases in her forehead and neck. Yet she was beautiful, making Seth wonder if she was real. He gazed around, but it was only the two of them, the night sultry but not miserable. He wanted to speak, but was uncertain of what to say. The mutual attraction was obvious, but did she know about him? Had Uncle David been trying to give her time to disappear, rather than hook up with a man so damaged? Seth wanted to reach for her hand, he ached to confirm that yes, she was factual. In a moment of impetuousness, he did that very thing, finding her fingers warm and sensual. She gripped back with force and he swallowed hard. Maybe staying in Florida another few weeks would be just fine.
He didn’t want more than a fling with her, which would upset Aunt Sheila. But Seth sensed this woman wasn’t asking for something permanent in how she then quickly released his hand, but stepped toward him at the same time. Then she stroked his cheek, which made him close his eyes. “I’m Norah,” she said, her German accent prominent. “I know who you are.”
Seth nodded as a shiver of pleasure ran down his spine, mixed with a chill of uncertainty. “Who told you?” he said hoarsely.
“Auntie Deb.” Then Norah had a soft chuckle. “Uncle David was terrified you’d come tonight. But Deb told him there was no way to exclude you.”
Now Seth opened his eyes. Norah’s hand remained on his face, she was so close to him that if he wrapped his arm around her waist, they would become one. He wanted that now more than before, in part due to David’s reservations and that this woman seemed unafraid of him. Seth set his hand on her shoulder, the fabric like a barrier, even for how sheer it was. “Why the long sleeves?” he said.
Norah trembled, then shook her head. “Don’t ask so many questions.”
Seth blinked, then removed her hand from his cheek. He grasped hers within his, staring right into her eyes. “Can I ask where we might go?”
She smiled. “A motel would be good.”
He nodded. “Do you have a car?”
She laughed. “You don’t, I assume?”
“That I do not.” A rising sense of mirth permeated Seth’s chest. This wasn’t the kind of encounter his aunt had planned and David Myerson wouldn’t be pleased either. Yet, Norah wasn’t a girl; she looked to be in her early forties. Was she attached to one of the men at the party, Seth wondered. “Will our absence be a problem?”
“We won’t get far without a vehicle,” Norah sighed. She squeezed Seth’s hands, then took hers away. “I’m only a guest here.”
“Me too.” Seth chuckled. “But perhaps I could call on you tomorrow, in the light of day.” He smirked at himself. Mickey would understand and let Seth use his car. And depending on how things went and the length of Norah’s visit, Seth might refrain from returning north immediately. Laurie would find this hilarious, but Laurie would be the only one with whom Seth would share it, other than asking Mickey to borrow the car.
For those moments, Seth permitted such ordinary considerations. Most people didn’t ponder all that rumbled through his mind; sometimes the most basic passions overruled. And maybe it was good that Norah was shrouded in mystery, from her long sleeves to her German accent. Maybe Seth could simply expend his hunger as if he was no more than a tourist seeking to escape the boredom of everyday life. That was the pretense upon which he had arrived in Miami, his formal introduction to Sheila’s older relatives cloaked by that excuse. Of course they knew the truth, or a glimmer of it; he’d left New York when he did because of the Snyders. Yet to these transplants, his arrival was blamed on the cold weather, a need for change. Would Seth reveal that to Norah? She was here for reasons he could imagine, but not wish to ponder deeply. They could have a brief affair, unless she was married to one of the men inside the Myerson residence. Then Seth might only share one encounter with her. Yet he was going to sleep with her, for in how she now touched him, she insinuated nothing less would be acceptable. Seth nodded, then kissed her, agreeing to her unstated request.
They necked under the tree, then broke apart in laughter as sprinklers shot water in their direction. Seth grabbed her hand, leading her to a dry spot on the sidewalk. He gazed at the house, finding a living room curtain had been pulled back. Then it was hastily returned, still rustling. “Someone was spying on us. Anyone I need to worry about?”
“No,” she said, her voice light. “But I do need to show you something.”
She shook her head, then stared at the ground. “You’re a sculptor, correct?”
“Yeah.” He shivered, wondering if it was from his slightly damp clothes or more rightly in how readily he’d answered her question. Perhaps he still was an artist, yet that distinction seemed erroneous. He’d been a sculptor ages ago. Then he wondered if Norah considered herself still German, or was she simply a Jew like the others. Their accents were as strong as hers, but Seth always felt that their native country had been excised from their characters. They were Jewish, living in Florida, no more, no less.
“When was the last time you sculpted anything?” As she spoke Norah grasped Seth’s hand. Hers was wet and she spread the water along his fingers. “Have you made anything here?”
“In Minnesota,” he said softly, which wasn’t quite the truth. He’d played around with clay in Brooklyn, but nothing tangible had emerged. “I made figures of those in the hospital I stayed at.”
He wanted to be honest. She must know he’d been in and out of institutions for how vehemently Uncle David had tried to keep them apart. Yet, Norah wasn’t a child. Did she have a lover waiting in the house or did the Myersons believe Seth was more damaged than Sheila and Mickey had let on?
“Do you want to sculpt again?”
Norah still massaged Seth’s hand, but the feeling wasn’t sensual, or at least Seth couldn’t conjure any passion. Not that he felt artistically inclined either. He stared at Norah’s actions, like she was trying to stir his gift. Then he stroked her face. “What are you doing?”
“They told me about you, but I didn’t believe them. I don’t want to believe them,” she added, her voice plaintive. “Maybe if I show you, then you can sculpt again.”
“Show me what?” Seth placed his other hand over hers, stopping her actions. Then he looked at her left arm, covered by fabric. “Why are you wearing long sleeves?”
This time his tone was direct; if she put up an argument, Seth wouldn’t stop until…. He gazed at her, finding tears forming in her eyes. He wiped them away, but her mouth quivered, and she shook her head. “You don’t want to know,” she whispered.
A welling sorrow rose in his chest. Yet it was buffered by a burning need for knowledge. “You can show me,” he said, gently placing his hand on her left upper forearm.
As he did, she flinched, then sighed. “Not here.” Then she let out a small cry. Immediately Seth pulled her close, wondering if the secret could leak through her tears, which now fell copiously. He wanted to soothe her, but first he needed to feel her pain. He felt strong standing there, gripping her tightly, like all the answers were right at his fingertips. Yet he grimaced, not for how fierce were her cries, but for the gamble he wanted to take. But he would never get another chance, and how fleeting was this opportunity? How risky, he also wondered, far more than shock therapy.
He stroked her left arm as if he could see that injury, permanent in nature. His fingers tingled, although nothing in his right hand felt inspired. More to notice was his heart, which beat frantically in his chest. He wanted to make love to her, but in addition, he needed to inspect her. It would be akin to how he had focused so intently upon the blue barn, but maybe Norah could proffer a deeper healing. Or, Seth allowed, a further descent into….
She kissed him and he succumbed to that diversion. Did he want to be well, he wasn’t certain. He did want this woman, but not in a motel in another day or more. Ignoring his racing heart, he ended the kiss, then pointed toward the end of the street. A children’s park was around the block, if he remember correctly. “I want you,” he said.
Norah bit her lip, then nodded. “There’s a playground around the corner. It’s very dark there at night.”
“Good.” Seth assumed she had walked the length and breadth of this neighborhood, just like he had Mickey and Sheila’s. But unlike Seth’s sojourns taken during the heat of the day, Norah had required the shield of nighttime. And again the dark would protect her, and him as well. Let them make love this first time without any scepter of her past. Tomorrow Seth would revisit this woman, and then she could fully reveal herself. That evening was only to broker the initiation.
May days were full of painting and correspondence for Eric, posing and domestic duties for Lynne, while Jane romped all over the house and garden. A toddler never noted the slight angst suffered by her parents and while Renee remained in the dark, Sam was aware. He didn’t broach Eric’s anxieties, nor did Sam mention his role in Eric’s future canvases. Eric was too busy capturing Lynne and Jane, when Jane permitted her portrait to be painted. And if Eric had any free time, he planted vegetables or stretched canvases for the Queens series.
In the evenings, as Eric scribbled brief notes to various European admirers, Lynne might write to Laurie or Agatha. Often Lynne fell asleep on the sofa once Jane was in bed, and sometimes when Lynne stirred, Eric was near her, sketching her image. She would smile, rub her eyes, then remain horizontal, allowing him to complete the drawing, which often led to Eric then snuggling with her. They didn’t make love on the sofa; Eric would hoist Lynne from the couch, then lead her upstairs. Lynne would fall asleep and sometimes she woke in the middle of the night to Eric beside her. Sometimes she stirred to an empty bed, finding him either sketching outside on the patio if enough light permitted it. Otherwise he was answering letters by one lone lamp, over which she scolded him lightly for using poor light. Rare were the nights that Eric slept solidly, and sometimes the entire family napped in the afternoon. Lynne didn’t question her husband for she knew there was no adequate answer for him to give.
But by early June, others noticed Eric’s fatigue. Sam teased that becoming a father of two was already taxing the painter, while Renee gently suggested that Eric take some sleeping tablets. But it was a pastor to inquire with more force, on a warm June night after supper had been served. Marek sat at the patio table with Jane in his arms as Eric yawned in the chair across. Lynne had gone to fetch dessert, leaving Marek with a moment to observe his friend, who recently had seemed utterly exhausted. Marek understood Lynne’s weariness, but she was starting to feel better, although she still easily broke into tears. Eric looked downright drained, yet he had shown Marek several completed paintings of Lynne and Jane, and stacks of blank canvases, one of which Eric had set aside to use for Sam’s portrait. It was big enough, Eric had laughed, to showcase the automobile. Marek had chuckled, but even then Eric had appeared worn. Now he closed his eyes, no sketch pad nearby. Marek didn’t mind, two paintings of him and Jane were plenty. Marek was looking forward to the first portrait’s return, but that might not be until next year. Several Italian galleries had been added to the tour and a few French museums not originally exhibiting the paintings wanted to be included. At this rate, Eric had smiled, the paintings might be gone for an entire extra year.
Marek studied his friend, Eric’s eyes still closed. Small frets were etched along the side of Eric’s mouth, also forming lines in his brow. Eric had never looked so old and perhaps fatherhood could be claimed as the reason, but Marek knew something else had caused these wrinkles. Then Marek frowned; after that one conversation, they had never spoken about hawks again, there had seemed no need. And actually, the night Eric asked his question, Marek’s response had been rather terse, but Marek had still been troubled by Renee’s decision to end their sessions. That subject had overruled Eric’s initial query and at the time, Marek hadn’t felt the need to return to an issue that carried so much baggage for both men. It had been necessary to acknowledge it, Marek permitted. But what else had there been to discuss about such a miracle? Or maybe, Marek allowed, it was easier for him to view that hawk as miraculous. For Eric, hawks carried darker undertones.
Yet, Eric’s time as a bird had culminated in the arrival of the toddler in Marek’s grasp, and another baby on the way. Eric hadn’t mentioned Seth, and the pastor hadn’t wished to ask, for the evening had been full of delicious food and jovial conversation, and as Lynne’s return was detected, another course of the tastiest kind awaited. Marek truly appreciated Lynne’s baking prowess, especially this new treat of sweet potato pie. It was as fantastic as the peach, yet so different in taste and texture. Marek would have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with the peach, but when he ate the sweet potato, no accompaniment was required. Small flecks of potato dotted the pie, and yet they seemed right at home. Pumpkin was perfectly smooth, and Marek still adored that filling. But sweet potato reminded him of home, the imperfect yet flawless texture as if he was lingering in his mother’s kitchen, waiting for dessert.
If he ever got to meet Agatha Morris, Marek would look for similarities between that woman and the memories of his mother. In the meantime, he had written to Mrs. Morris, thanking her for teaching Lynne how to bake such an exquisite treat, and now an emerging correspondence had begun. Marek had enjoyed sharing insights with Mrs. Morris, and she greatly coveted his news about Jane. Jane seemed as fond of sweet potato pie as her pastor, for as soon as Lynne set down the tray, doling out slices, Jane started to call for her mother, or maybe she was saying mine. Marek wasn’t sure and he asked as Lynne laughed. “I can’t tell what she means, but she only says it when I put pie on the table.”
The foursome said little while dessert was consumed and Marek gladly handed Jane to her mother when the toddler clamored for more. Marek loved this little girl, but she’d eaten her slice, and he wanted to concentrate on Jane’s father, not to mention enjoy his own dessert. Taking slow, well-savored bites, Marek observed how the man across seemed half-present. Something was demanding Eric’s attention, but it wasn’t connected to his family or art or even to Lynne’s magnificent pie.
Once plates were empty, chatter returned, starting with Jane, who gibbered in what to Marek sounded like Polish-accented English. In Polish, he asked if she had gotten enough dessert, and she responded in what sounded like to Marek that no, she had not. He translated that to her parents, making both chuckle. “Oh, I think you’ve had quite enough.” Lynne kissed the top of Jane’s head, then made a face. “And you smell a little fragrant. Time for a bath.”
Marek noticed Lynne’s graceful exit. Dishes remained, but Marek didn’t think about those as he gazed at Eric, who stared ahead blankly. Anyone else would assume the painter had been watching his wife and daughter walk away. Marek knew otherwise.
Yet the pastor didn’t speak immediately. He stacked the plates, the early evening pleasant as a cooling breeze wafted past. Marek imagined spending more than a few summer nights at this residence and he said a quick prayer of thanksgiving for how God had maneuvered him far away from home, yet to a place so familiar. Looking at the studio, then to the forest beyond, Marek could imagine this was where he had encountered a most unlikely meeting with what he had long ago decided was a moment with Christ. Yet Marek didn’t feel that Jesus was sitting across the table; God used Eric in a different manner, through Eric’s prodigious talent as well as having turned him into a bird of prey.
And as the father Eric was, the husband, and the friend. Marek didn’t think a fellow Pole had changed into a hawk to lure Marek away from certain death. Maybe Eric considered that as the case, but it wasn’t a point the pastor wished to debate. What mattered to Marek was getting to the root of Eric’s fatigue. It was, after all, his job as a cleric to minister to his flock. “So Eric, have you had trouble sleeping lately?”
Marek’s tone was flat, but he had a hard time hiding his smile. Around this man, nothing could be taken for granted, nor concealed for long. Eric stirred from his reverie, then gazed at the pastor. His smile was slow in coming, but Eric had heard every word Marek spoke. “Um, yeah, actually. But I can’t blame Jane for it. She sleeps like a rock.”
“Ah well, that’s good. And Lynne is resting well too?”
Eric nodded, now grinning widely. “Indeed, for herself and the baby.” Then Eric sighed, but it wasn’t hedged in weariness. The joy he espoused made Marek’s pulse race, then the pastor looked at the ground. Small smooth stones reminded Marek of the forest he had long ago traversed, pebbles lining a shallow creek from which he drank when the hawk had taken shelter along a low branch. That bird had directed Marek’s every move, leading him far away from the village, but keeping him near water and berry vines. Marek had never explored that section of the countryside, and he had never returned. He’d fled from his home, never saying goodbye to anyone. Truthfully, there had only been one other person Marek would have wanted to see, but he’d been too traumatized at what he’d found to seek out anyone. The barn had been burnt to the ground, his home completely ransacked. He knew what had happened, there was no manner in which to disguise the atrocity perpetrated. He even knew why, revenge against his uncle for hiding a small number of Jews who had escaped being sent to the death camps. That Marek’s family was Lutheran had done little good in the mostly Catholic country, although later Marek doubted that even if they had been Catholic would his family have been spared. By then the Nazis were in total control, only tiny factions of resistant fighters holing up in the forests. Marek had rarely pondered the fate of other clans within their village who had tightly shut their doors as murder was afoot. Only one person sometimes slipped into Marek’s thoughts, but that young woman was now as lost to Marek as was his entire family.
Yet, he couldn’t erase her, as Eric now stared toward the house where his wife and daughter had gone. Then Eric looked at Lynne’s empty chair, the stack of plates, finally gazing at Marek. Eric’s eyes were fully human, or Marek was just so used to them that no longer did he see anything but those of a talented painter whose vision was acute not from otherworldly pastimes. Seth Gordon probably had similar eyes, seeing what the average person couldn’t identity. Or maybe Eric’s vista was unique. If Marek was ever introduced to Seth, he would study that man’s eyes, seeking confirmation. Then Marek smiled as Eric leaned back in his chair, cracking his knuckles. Eric took a deep breath, then let it out. “How long has she been gone?”
“Hours perhaps,” Marek teased. “Not long. But your wife is as well versed in subtly as she is at baking pies.”
Eric chuckled. “For so many years she’s lied on my behalf. She probably will again one of these days.”
Marek nodded. “Do you feel change is imminent?”
Eric shook his head, then he shrugged, throwing his hands in the air. “I used to be able to tell a few days in advance. Then a couple of times I had no idea. That’s when the trips started becoming longer.” Eric sighed. “How much do you wanna know?”
Now Marek flinched, for he wasn’t actually sure. “I suppose I want to know whatever you feel like sharing.”
Eric smiled. “Do you realize I have never talked about this with anyone except my wife? Sam and Renee have seen it, so I don’t need to say anything to them. Not that I want to, I mean….” Eric stood, then looked at the studio. “It’s been over eighteen months since the last time. Maybe I’m past it, but I can’t assume that.” He turned to face Marek. “Since we’ve come home, it’s all I can think about, not sure if it’s reading how many people admire the blue barn or just that having been away for a month, I never considered it. And I mean that. I did joke with Lynne before we left that if I transformed….” Eric paused, then sat back down. “My God, even to say that seems bizarre. Did I actually just say that I….”
Marek nodded. He felt almost like a counselor, not wishing for Eric to stop speaking. It was very odd indeed, but it was also the truth. Again Eric shrugged, then he stared at the house. Then he gazed at the dishes, picking up one of the forks, which he then carefully placed back with the rest. “I turn into a bird Marek, but the last thing I want is to leave my wife and our child. My wife is pregnant again, and I left her before, but I can’t promise I won’t abandon her, Jane and our next baby. Our second child….” Eric slumped in his seat, then quickly sat up. “I know we’re blessed, please don’t misconstrue my complaining.” Then Eric sighed. “My goodness, I’m so tired. All I do is wonder about something I have no control over. I used to do this years ago, leaving Lynne for a few days at a time. But now I go away for weeks, sometimes months. And what if, God forbid, what if I….”
But Eric couldn’t say the words. Instead he stood, stalking about the patio. Marek didn’t watch him, but as Eric crunched the small stones, Marek knew where the painter stomped. Suddenly Marek wondered if his family had been listening for anyone to halt what was being perpetrated. Would anyone come to their aid, risking their lives in the process? But Marek had no idea how many Nazis had descended upon the village in broad daylight with one task on their minds. As if his family were despised Jews, they were rounded up, forced into his father’s barn, then…. Yet, there was nothing Marek or Lynne, Sam or Renee or even Jane could do to cease the inexplicable alteration that Eric occasionally made. Marek had yet to meet this family when it last occurred. It was what had brought the Snyders to St. Matthew’s. And now two men discussed an event most people would consider to be wholly ungodly. Yet God was present in hawks as well as inside a burning barn.
The barn hadn’t been blue, Marek couldn’t now conjure what shade his father had painted it. But when he did think of it, it was the bright kingfisher hue in Sam’s painting. And something about that particular shade was so healing; had Eric planned that, or did it just come to him. Or had the barn he’d based that painting upon been that beautiful color? Marek had no doubt that Eric had painted that entire scene from memory, but not that of a man. The mice had been terrified of a predatory creature and that creature was now the person still skulking around the patio table. The prowling manner of Eric’s steps gave Marek a brief chill. Then Eric plopped back into his seat, crossing his arms over his chest. Then those limbs fell to the arm rests. But Eric gripped the end of the handles, unable to fully shake his mood.
His mood was tinged with anger, but steeped in helplessness. Marek knew those feelings well, then wondered if it was that sensation which had kept his neighbors behind their locked doors. Then Marek pondered the fate of one woman, not much more than a girl back then; had she considered him? When he returned to the village, it was late, and no lights shone from any of the houses. Only the moon had illuminated the area, probably better for Marek to see such devastation in the dimmest light possible. His neighbors probably thought he was among the dead, for his mother had sent him off early the previous morning. Marek hadn’t lingered long, little for him to see other than the remnants of his life in smoldering piles where a barn had once stood. He had gingerly entered the house, but in moonlight he noted similar ruin, as if merely ghosts remained. When he exited the house, he had quickly glanced at the surrounding homes. To him, ghosts dwelled there too, but now he could accept that those people had done the only thing they could. They had looked away, praying to God that their lives would be spared.
Now Marek possessed the ability to permit such actions, for truthfully, it was rare for people to stand up for a just cause. Did Klaudia ever ask her parents why they did nothing while the Jagucki family was being burned alive? Did her family even survive the war? Maybe the Nazis had returned to that village, destroying it entirely to hide that massacre. Marek would never know, a part of his life forgotten. Yet, Eric wasn’t afforded that luxury, as it was. Marek gazed at that man, who appeared so vulnerable. Never before had Marek witnessed the painter in such a state. Then Marek shuddered. He inhaled, then exhaled, praying as he did so. His intercession covered the Snyder family, Seth Gordon, and Klaudia Lisowski. Marek wasn’t sure if she was dead or alive, but he felt an overwhelming need to include her. Then suddenly, he mentioned her name. He hadn’t spoken about her to anyone living. Only his brother Dominik had known the extent of Marek’s feelings for her. And how Marek had assumed she felt about him.
Only when it grew too dark to see did Marek stop talking. A few times Eric added some affirmative comment. Otherwise Marek had usurped the conversation, but he didn’t feel to have offended Eric. Marek fully recalled what they had been discussing when no longer could the painter continue to speak. And honestly, what Marek offered wasn’t any less strange, how else to consider such mayhem in that civilized setting? Lights blazed from the house, but the brightness wasn’t frightening. Marek knew true warmth from where he sat, as if he could hear a mother singing lullabies. The forest surrounding Eric’s property held no mysteries other than as a safety zone for…. Marek stood, then stretched. Then he reached for the stack of plates. “Goodness, where has the time gone?”
Eric went to his feet, then yawned. “I couldn’t tell you. But I will say I feel like I could sleep for a week.”
Marek smiled, gazing at the upstairs windows, which were lit from behind closed curtains. “I hope that tonight ushers in several good evenings’ rest.”
“I can’t imagine getting up for anything other than Jane pitching a fit.” Eric stepped to where Marek still stood. “Thank you for listening, and for sharing.” Eric took a breath, then exhaled slowly. “You really have no idea what happened to her?”
“None at all. Sometimes I considered trying to find her, but I never had, as you Yanks say, the guts.” Marek smiled. “Perhaps it was easier for all of us, assuming she and her family did survive.”
Eric nodded, then gently patted Marek’s shoulder. “I’ll pray for them. For Klaudia, right?”
Marek shivered as her name was spoken. “Yes, Klaudia. This’s terrible, but I can’t even recall the rest of her family’s names.”
“I’m not surprised.” Eric began walking toward the French doors and Marek followed. “Sometimes I wonder how you’re here at all.”
They had nearly reached the house, but Marek stopped. “Sometimes I ponder that as well. And then I shake my head, how foolish of me to question more than how best to serve God at that moment.” Marek spoke lightly. It had taken him a long time to reach that point within his faith. At times life was so absurd, best to never take it too seriously.
Eric’s soft chuckle warmed the pastor’s heart. “Truer words have rarely been spoken. I badly needed our discussion. How can I repay you?”
The painter’s voice was also chipper and Marek playfully tapped his foot. “Well, a slice or two of sweet potato pie would be an excellent manner of compensation.”
Eric laughed, but lowered his voice as they entered the house. “Pie I can spare. But I doubt two slices will be enough.”
“Any more than two and my trousers won’t fit.” The men trooped to the kitchen, which had been tidied. A tin waited on the table with two large slices under wax paper, making Marek chuckle. “Your wife is always a step ahead of me.”
“Of me too.” Eric took the dessert plates from Marek’s hands, placing them in the sink. Then he joined the pastor. “So I suppose we’ll see you on Sunday.”
“Indeed.” Marek picked up the tin, then gazed at Eric. “Give Lynne my best, and of course my thanks for the delicious supper.”
Eric nodded, then cleared his throat. Yet he remained still. Marek didn’t gaze at him; so much had been said, a plethora of items Eric might be considering. Then Eric leaned against the counter. Now Marek looked his way. Eric still appeared unsettled, yet if he spoke, they could still be talking in the morning. Marek stifled a yawn, which made Eric chuckle. “Go on,” the painter smiled. “We’ll continue this another day.”
Marek grinned, heading toward the door. Eric followed, but Marek shook his head. “I’ll see myself out. You find your bed. And may you have a very good night’s sleep.”
Eric started to protest, but Marek waved him off, then opened the door. As he stepped outside, a brisk wind ruffled the wax paper atop the pie tin, blowing it away. Marek closed the door, then carefully walked to the front gate. He took one glance back at the Snyders’ home, still brightly lit. Yet the forest behind it was dark. Marek set his hand over the pieces of pie, then made his way through the gate. Opening the car door, he placed the uncovered tin on the front passenger seat, then walked to the driver’s door. Another stiff breeze blew past him. He said a brief prayer, got into his car, then drove away.
Over the following week, Eric enjoyed several straight nights of sleep. He started painting a portrait of Agatha, her sister Belle, and Lynne, all standing in Agatha’s kitchen. He replied to the rest of the letters that had arrived during his absence, then started answering those that had accumulated since the Snyders returned from New York. When Jane came down with a cold in mid-June, Eric’s sleep suffered, but that was solely related to placating a cranky toddler. Lynne and Eric took turns, but Eric preferred his wife to rest. She was over the bulk of morning sickness, but remained easily upset, although her tears rarely lasted for more than minutes. They joked that perhaps they were having a boy this time, yet Eric felt this baby was another daughter, and he kept that joy to himself.
He did chat more with Marek after church or when that man came for dinner. Eric and his pastor discussed general topics at St. Matthew’s, but at the Snyders’ home, once Lynne had taken Jane inside for the evening, the men’s conversation drifted from the present to the past. Eric relayed much of his childhood while Marek recounted his own youth, two very different courses, they noted. Yet just as Eric was honing his talent for art, Marek was being drawn into a religious life. By the time Eric had met Lynne, Marek was a pastor, aching to leave Soviet-led Poland.
Sometimes their discussions extended to those around them; Eric had yet to start the painting of Sam and his car, a phrase that always elicited a laugh from the pastor. Marek still endured harassment from Mrs. Harmon, although lately she’d been kinder to him, the reason for which Marek wasn’t certain. Perhaps summer calmed her mood, he smiled. Eric mentioned that his art dealer was coming in July and Marek inquired if Laurie Abrams was joining him. Eric gave pause when Marek included Laurie, then smiled, answering that indeed it would a twosome. Marek never asked why and Eric only added that Laurie preferred going west at this time of year rather than making a sojourn to Florida to visit his cousin. Seth had yet to return to New York, and neither Eric nor Lynne knew any more than what Laurie had been told, that Seth enjoyed life in Miami and had no idea when he’d go home to Brooklyn.
On the sixteenth, a Sunday, Eric and Lynne decided against going to St. Matthew’s. Jane still had the sniffles and Lynne was tired. Sam had asked them over for dinner and Eric even cancelled that date. When Jane fell asleep right after lunch, Lynne also laid down, leaving a husband and father with time on his hands. Eric wandered through the garden, vegetables growing well, but a little behind schedule. Eric weeded, then stood, brushing dirt from his knees. Then he gazed at the studio, the sun making glass panes sparkle like a siren. He smiled, heading that way.
The door wasn’t locked and Eric stepped inside, some completed canvases on easels, stacks of blank canvases along the walls. The large one waited in the back and Eric approached it, imagining the painting already displayed upon it. Sam would be leaning against the driver’s door, his arms probably crossed. Eric would leave the pose to Sam’s choosing, but he assumed Sam would set a shield over his chest, as if telling Eric that while this painting had been Sam’s idea, it was also a trade-off. Yet the Aherns hadn’t spoken to either Snyder about adopting a child. Renee visited often and held Jane at every opportunity. But that was as far as Renee could go. Eric didn’t mind, it was fantastic to have the Aherns back in his, Lynne, and Jane’s lives. If children were meant to follow, Eric knew they eventually would.
He studied the blank canvas, such a wide scope, but he did wish to depict the entire length of the Chevy. The only question Eric still pondered was how he would fashion Sam’s face, or more precisely, that man’s smile. Or lack of one; Eric wasn’t at all sure which expression Sam would proffer. Eric half expected a slight grimace, but then Sam would later be hounded by his relatives as to why he hadn’t projected a happier countenance. It would be the same when Eric painted Stanford, although no one would harass him if he didn’t grin. Well, Laurie would, and Eric chuckled. Laurie would wear the biggest smile he owned while Stanford would do little more than smirk.
Eric hadn’t mentioned to Marek that he was planning to sketch that duo in July; to say that would imply far more than was Eric’s right to bestow. Yet Marek seemed to comprehend the gist of the men’s relationship, why else would he have inquired if Laurie would be joining Stanford? Eric had been honest, that indeed Laurie would prefer to fly west rather than travel south. As far as Eric knew, Seth was doing well in Florida. But maybe Laurie was keeping the truth from the Snyders, or perhaps Seth was as good of a liar as Lynne.
That thought made Eric shudder, then he shrugged. Lynne had gone above and beyond the call when it came to keeping Eric’s secret. He rarely considered all the excuses she had once made on his behalf, and while those in town who mattered were aware, others remained with whom she might have to again stretch the truth. Yet Stanford had never called Eric on his previous absences, and as for the Canfields, it wasn’t like Lynne and Fran were constantly visiting one another. Still, it might be awkward, then Eric shook his head. This was all conjecture on his part. He’d had no physical inkling leading him to believe a departure was imminent. Yet why couldn’t he get it from his head?
At least he was sleeping better; he slept when Jane did, although not during the day. But he felt well rested, which was good because Lynne required slumber, which made Eric smile. If he went inside now, there was still plenty of time for Jane to nap while parents enjoyed some carnal pleasures. But Eric didn’t leave the studio, for Lynne had looked especially tired that morning. Better for her to get all forty of those winks, then perhaps that evening they could make love.
Eric turned to face her portrait, displayed on the other side of the room. That canvas was also large, but not as big as the one saved for Sam. Lynne was asleep on the chaise lounge, her breasts exposed, also concealed by her hair, which she hadn’t cut since their return. Her nipples peeked through brown strands, how she had fallen asleep after Eric had made love to her there in the sunroom a few weeks back before Jane fell ill, but right after Eric and his pastor had spoken about a woman still deeply entwined within Marek’s heart. Klaudia Lisowski might not even be alive, but if she was, Eric wished that somewhere on the European continent she had access to The Pastor and His Charge. He knew it was a fleeting hope; his paintings weren’t anywhere close to Poland. And in all likelihood, she was…. Eric closed his eyes, thinking back to how Marek had first spoken her name, like he was breathing life into a faded dream. She was probably deceased; most likely the Nazis had returned to Marek’s village, hauling everyone to a labor camp. She was the same age as Marek, or had been, and while they had known each other all their lives, only in that last year had more than friendship evolved. Marek had spoken plainly about her, yet his tone was measured, that of a man in his mid-thirties recalling what wasn’t more than an adolescence crush. Except that Eric had heard far more in Marek’s voice similarly to how Eric had deduced great loss in Marek’s otherwise cheery brown eyes.
How Marek Jagucki had maintained his sanity, Eric never questioned, for he had managed the same. Perhaps their situations had been wholly different, but the underlying horrors suffered either made or broke a person. Eric could stand there and admire his wife’s beauty, which he had placed one stroke at a time upon that canvas; how was that possible after all his father had done to him and to Eric’s mother? Equally, how could Marek seek the good in people, considering the appalling loss of his entire family?
Eric felt like painting, but not a picture of Lynne. He ached to create another impressionistic piece, about the only method he could employ to begin to make sense of such an abstract query. But the studio’s interior was warm and the women in his life had been sleeping for a good portion of the afternoon. Even if he started a painting, it would be the sort needing his undivided attention. And his attention was not merely focused upon art; he had so much on his mind that art was merely one way to start unraveling myriad questions in which most held no satisfactory answers.
Turning back to the painting of Lynne, Eric felt overtaken by passion, then he smiled at himself. Then his thoughts grew proprietary, how he’d felt about her when she had carried Jane. Yet his wife wasn’t that woman anymore, motherhood maturing her in a way that Eric noted within this recent portrait. She looked perfectly at ease without any upper clothing, but not because her hair hung loosely over her chest. This was a woman seasoned and unafraid of the future. She was similar to the figure Seth had carved, yet she wasn’t beseeching assistance. In this painting, Lynne was perfectly content, which was how Eric perceived her, regardless of her few bouts of weepiness. Those were strictly hormonal reactions to this particular pregnancy, and might not be at all related to whether or not she was carrying a boy. Eric studied his wife’s fulfilled smile, how relaxed she seemed, and yet how solitary was her pose. Solitary wasn’t right, he mused, for her left hand clutched her abdomen, denoting the baby. But she looked perfectly happy by herself. Eric remembered how often she had glanced at him and how he’d had to remind her to stay still. She had laughed as if having never posed for him at all, yet she always returned to this same comfortable mood.
However something about her face troubled Eric. He examined the hue of her eyes, which was correct, then he gazed at her nipples, a deep red wine color, which had surprised Eric as the months passed, how that part of her body had permanently altered. Before her nipples had been pink, then he smiled. She wasn’t that woman anymore.
But who was she, he then thought, again returning to the painting. She seemed far more wise than who she’d been when perched upon that stool, her arms outstretched, her breasts completely visible. She didn’t need to be so unabashed, although attire wasn’t required. Eric hadn’t chosen to portray her as vulnerable; even when caught in a moment’s sorrow, she acted as if she could withstand a firestorm. And that thought made Eric shake in his shoes.
Hearing Marek talk about what had happened to his family had chilled Eric; it was one thing for the painter to have discerned such an atrocity, but to have the words spoken regarding it was as odd as Eric discussing his past or turning into a bird of prey. Those events couldn’t be real, yet they were, and neither man had a corner on the market when it came to suffering. But what of the women that had been left behind? Lynne had always coped without her husband, yet most of those times had been brief. Still she lied for him time and again, then had managed to convince Renee, although Sam had needed proof. But now if Eric went away, there was Jane to consider and another child and…. As Eric glanced at her portrait, he understood why Lynne looked so contented. She knew that no matter what, her life and those whom she loved were under the care of someone far greater than she.
For a moment, Eric felt unnecessary. Then he sighed, relieved that even if he left, Lynne would be all right. He hated thinking about missing any part of this pregnancy, and perhaps he was wasting precious time mulling over the notion. But within his heart, he knew Lynne would find a way, like she always had before, of smoothing rough edges created by his absences. Granted, with their three closest friends aware, it was easier than previously. And Jane was too little to need verbal assurances, although Eric knew Lynne would provide those promises, probably more for Lynne’s heart than Jane’s need. It would be Eric to suffer most, going off to God knows where for whatever reason necessary. Then Eric sighed long and loud. The tables had indeed turned; no longer was Lynne the one left alone.
He gazed at her smile, not the same one she had sported when seated upon the stool. The mystery of this grin went far deeper, not completely connected to the baby inside her. It was bound up in her faith, which was a mere flicker when she was this far along with Jane. And it was related to an idea that Eric hadn’t realized when painting this portrait, but that now felt like a slap along his face. If the worst happened, Lynne would be all right. She would mourn him of course, but now her soul was bolstered by a force more powerful than Eric’s position as her husband. He inhaled that idea, then exhaled, trying to not grow resentful. How many years had she been reticent about posing for him, believing that their infertility was her problem, and all the weeks she spent living without him while Sam thought she was crazy? Then came another long period of solitude, followed by yet again weeks of seclusion, although she was never fully isolated. Each of those had fashioned within her a necessary strength, as well as highlighting a weakness only answered by faith. Those checks and balances were culminated in the image Eric had set onto canvas, like he’d never seen this woman before.
Before…. He ached at that word, but not for what his wife had suffered. Before now fell upon his shoulders as if even this moment was slipping from his grasp, turning into a time he would never get back. But that was the nature of time; it ticked away and best to relish the present. That was how Lynne always approached his homecomings; yes she had lamented his absence, but when he returned, all that pain was forgotten. They had only spoken about it in depth right before he went searching for his father. And then everything changed, which was so starkly pictured in this version of Eric’s wife. If he had painted her in their ancient past, he imagined those portraits would look nothing like the woman she was now.
Did she still need him? He shook his head, of course she did. But perhaps part of her heart had altered, especially with another baby on the way, taking space previously allotted for her husband. Or maybe Eric was being ridiculous. He stepped away from the painting, then gazed at the rest gathered, Lynne with Agatha and Belle. Lynne’s smile was fetching; she was pregnant, but they weren’t yet aware. Eric ached to pull her close, telling her how important she was to him. Then he glanced back at the semi-nude. That woman didn’t seem to need him at all.
He knew that wasn’t true, but why had he depicted her in such a way? He then knew why, but loathed to expend more thought toward such a notion. As he exited the studio, he stared at the house, his bedroom window open, the curtain fluttering against the screen. Lynne was awake, was probably waiting for him. Eric quickly walked along the path, not thinking about more than the woman upstairs.
The couple made love, then Eric collected Jane from her crib. The trio lounged together on the master bed until the telephone rang. Eric headed to the kitchen, picking up the receiver, but the caller had hung up. He lingered for a couple of minutes, but whoever had tried to call didn’t attempt it again.
When Eric returned upstairs, he found his wife and daughter in the nursery; Jane wore a fresh diaper and Lynne chatted to the baby, still lying on the changing table. Eric said nothing, only wishing to listen to voices which filled him with complete happiness. Then the phone rang again. He barely had time to catch Lynne’s gaze, then he ran downstairs, picking up the receiver. “Hello?” he said breathlessly.
“Eric? Oh I’m sorry, didn’t mean to make you rush.” Stanford spoke softly, then cleared his throat. “I tried a few minutes ago, was hoping to catch you.”
“I’d just missed it.” Eric gripped the receiver. “Is everything all right?”
The long pause made Eric grit his teeth. Then Stanford coughed. “Um, no. Laurie’s on a plane for Miami. We didn’t want to tell you until we knew exactly what was going on, and while we’re still not a hundred percent certain, Laurie insisted that I get in touch with you, and Lynne of course. As you can guess, he’s on his way to see Seth.”
Eric nodded, then closed his eyes. When he opened them, he wished Lynne was close, but he hadn’t heard her come downstairs. “What’s happened Stan?”
Stanford took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “He’s in a hospital down there, we’re not even sure if it’s a psychiatric hospital. To be perfectly honest, it’s been like pulling teeth to get anything out of those people, I swear to God.” Then Stanford coughed again. “Only last night did Laurie learn that Seth was admitted. He’s going down alone, but Wilma will probably join him in a few days. I think she wants Laurie to assess just what’s happened before making the trip.”
As Stanford finished speaking, Eric heard footsteps approaching. Lynne entered the kitchen toting Jane, but Eric couldn’t meet his wife’s gaze. He stared at the tin on the counter, half of a sweet potato pie left from a couple of days ago. Suddenly Eric was starving; as soon as he got off the phone, he’d have a large slice, maybe Jane would share it with him. Then Eric began to tremble. He closed his eyes again, praying that Seth had only suffered broken bones. But Eric knew a far worse malady had gripped that man. If Seth had merely been physically injured, his family would have been notified immediately. But what ailed Seth had little to do with bodily trauma.
Lynne set her hand on Eric’s shoulder, which eased his shaking. Then she brought a chair to where he stood. Eric was hesitant to sit, but he did, still gripping the receiver. “Stanford, when will Laurie arrive in Miami?”
“Not until late tonight. He wasn’t able to get a direct flight, he’s got a layover in Charlotte, I think it’s Charlotte.” Stanford paused and Eric heard the shuffling of papers. Then Stanford coughed again. “Yes, he’s in North Carolina for a couple of hours. As soon as I know something concrete, I’ll be in touch.”
Eric nodded, then grasped Lynne’s hand, squeezing hard. “Stan, have him call me tonight. I’ll still be up, tell him to call collect once he knows anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I know he’ll have plenty of people to inform, but if he has time, I mean, he’ll be exhausted too. But if he can….”
“He will, that’s why I’m calling you now. He told me to tell you he was heading down there, I think so that you had a heads-up. But Eric, it might be very late and….”
“I’ve got three hours on you. It won’t be too late.”
“All right, if you’re certain, then I’ll tell him. I don’t think he was planning to talk to Rose or Wilma tonight. But I think he’ll be relieved to speak to you.”
Eric nodded again, then stood. Lynne was beside him and she put her arm around him. “All right, then I’ll wait to hear from him tonight. And Stan, please don’t hesitate to call us with any news, regardless of the hour.”
“Oh, well, certainly. Again, I do apologize for calling, I mean….”
Eric heard sniffles, but they weren’t from his daughter. Stanford again cleared his throat, then he sighed. “Eric, Laurie did want me to ask if you and Lynne, well, if you’d keep Seth in your prayers.”
“Oh of course. Do you think Laurie would mind if we shared this with Sam?”
“No, I don’t think he’d mind that.” Stanford again coughed, then returned to the line. “All right, well, Laurie will be speaking to you next. I have no idea how long he’ll be down there. At this point we’re just taking things moment by moment.”
“I see, okay. Well, again tell Laurie to call, no matter how late it is, unless he’s just too tired.” Eric gripped Lynne’s waist with his free hand, then stared at his daughter. Jane’s blue eyes were wide, like she comprehended the gravity of Stanford’s call.
Then Eric gazed at his wife; Lynne’s eyes were calm. She tickled the baby, bring Jane to a smile. As Jane began to giggle, Eric ended the call. He brought his family close, rousing Jane’s laughter. Eric whispered that he loved his wife, then that he’d be up late that night. Lynne said nothing while stroking his face, then nodding her head.
When Laurie arrived at the hospital, he carried several weights on his shoulders, those of his aunt and mother, Seth’s sisters, Laurie’s sisters too. However the biggest burden was the memory of Eric’s voice from when they spoke last night. The artist had sounded especially pained at this latest turn of events, which had crept into Laurie’s dreams, making for a poor night’s rest. It seemed Eric was more concerned about Seth than Wilma was, which Laurie knew wasn’t completely true, although Laurie’s aunt had seemed rather resigned when they had received this news. Wilma wasn’t pleased that it had taken her brother days to work up the courage to call them about Seth’s setback, but she wasn’t overly surprised by Mickey’s lack of fortitude. And now that Laurie knew the reason for Seth’s suicide attempt, maybe his entire family could begin to understand just how fragile Seth truly was.
What had also surprised Laurie, in addition to Eric’s unease, was exactly how Seth managed to survive these rather deliberate actions; he had slit his wrists up to his elbows, and yet was in a relatively stable physical condition. Sheila had relayed the news, once Laurie had changed out of rumpled clothes and had downed a stiff drink. It had been Mickey, she clucked, who hadn’t wanted to tell his sisters that Seth had again fallen into depression. Sheila had seen this coming, she’d sighed, also with a bourbon in hand, but her perceptive tone had faltered when she gave the reason, or what she expected was the reason. As she’d shared her thoughts, Laurie discerned guilt, but not that Seth had tried to kill himself on their watch. The culpability went far deeper, and now as Laurie approached the hospital’s front desk, he had to wonder if Seth had stayed in Miami aware of what might happen. Perhaps there had been no other place for him to fully explore this side of their heritage, even if it was geographically far away from where they called home.
But Laurie wasn’t thinking Brooklyn as he smiled at the starchily dressed nurse behind the counter. He gave Seth’s full name and their relationship while the nurse nodded, offering him Seth’s room number. Seth wasn’t receiving any mental health treatment; at this point, the staff was merely bringing him back to life. He’d lost a lot of blood, Sheila had noted. Yet somehow, it seemed he was going to survive.
Walking down the hall, Laurie wondered if his aunt expected Seth to make a full recovery. What was the purpose of these interventions, Laurie then mused. Would it be better if Seth died, then Laurie stopped right where he stood. He glanced at the sterile surroundings; it didn’t look much different than the institution in Vermont, although this was a regular hospital. Then Laurie wondered about Caffey-Miller; two of Eric’s paintings still hung there, and while Seth hadn’t elaborated about how much they meant to him, he’d noted other patients appreciated the color. Then Laurie continued down the hallway; how many hospital corridors was he supposed to visit, how much of his cousin remained?
When he reached Seth’s room, again Laurie paused, looking for a doctor or nurse. No one appeared, and he opened the door. Would his presence hinder Seth’s recovery? Then Laurie grimaced; his bearing would have no effect upon Seth’s physical health. Yet he had to see this man, one so beloved, yet fleeting. Maybe it was better that Laurie had traveled, and to somewhere new. This wasn’t Vermont or Minnesota. This was Miami, home to displaced European Jews as well as many other people.
Entering the room, Laurie found Seth sleeping, his arms swathed in gauze past his elbows. Laurie didn’t flinch; he’d witnessed his cousin in this manner before. Yet before Laurie hadn’t been aware of how deeply Seth hurt. Now that he had an inkling, it was like Laurie could feel the slash marks. Those wounds weren’t from days ago, or from Korea, but further back, maybe from Biblical time, if Aunt Sheila was right. Laurie smiled, then shook his head. But who knew, maybe Sheila was correct. If she was, at least this gave Laurie and his family something to go on.
But it didn’t matter, unless Seth was willing to work with her diagnosis, and who knew if he would. At this point, Laurie wasn’t certain if Seth still wanted to live. He had cut through several arteries, how much damage had he inflicted upon tendons and muscles? Laurie flinched again. Even if Seth found a way out of this black hole, had he permanently injured himself so that sculpting was impossible? Laurie wondered if that was the cause of Eric’s anxiety, one artist fearing for the talents of another. Yet, Laurie hadn’t heard that last night when speaking to Eric. That man feared something beyond Laurie’s scope.
Laurie sat down, wondering if he should have worn slacks. But the heat that morning had felt so oppressive, he had chosen shorts, although now the backs of his legs clung to the chair. A fan blew in the corner of the room, which was devoid of decoration. The air was stirred, but still smelled of all the other hospitals Laurie had ever visited, with the added odor of humidity making it hard for Laurie to catch his breath. That was new and he pondered what it signified. Everything in this latest setback seemed to carry substantial meaning. Laurie then wondered if that was due to the change of location, the severity of Seth’s wounds, or that this time they had an idea of why he was again in harm’s way. Or, Laurie swallowed with distaste, might this be the last time Seth would survive such an attempt?
Every time Seth had tried to end his life, the injuries were more severe. Sometimes he had overdosed on pills, once he’d tried to hang himself. That he hadn’t yet found success might seem strange, as if he was merely crying out for help. But divine intervention had always hindered Seth’s wishes, how Laurie saw it, especially this time. Mickey and Sheila had gone out to dinner, leaving Seth alone. He’d had plenty of time to bleed to death, Sheila had said plainly, but when they returned he’d still had a pulse, amazing the paramedics. Of course, no one had yet mentioned that maybe Seth might have suffered additional mental impairment. He had regained consciousness, but not made any overtures to family. Would he speak now, Laurie wondered, gazing at the unconscious figure in bed. Aunt Wilma would only travel if she felt Seth needed more immediate kin. There wasn’t anything she could do in Miami other than hover, what she’d told Laurie, and what good was that? The Gordons and Abrams had long ago accepted that Seth was a precarious member of the family; maybe shock treatment had severed him, or allowed those women space to set him apart. It wasn’t from lack of love, Laurie knew, but self-preservation. How much longer could any of them continue to stretch out their hands to no apparent avail? Laurie used to think he would go to any lengths to save his cousin, and perhaps he still would; he was in Miami after a dreadful connection from Charlotte through terrible turbulence. Then, as Seth’s eyelids fluttered, Laurie’s heart skipped beats. He wanted to weep, for suddenly he knew he’d fly to the moon if this man could return to their family in one piece.
“Seth, hey, you need anything?” Laurie scooted closer to the bed as he spoke, the chair legs scraping across the tile. He had wanted to get up, then lift the chair, but his legs were still stuck to the vinyl seat. The noise seemed to have stirred Seth, maybe that was okay. Laurie cleared his throat, then gingerly reached for Seth’s left hand, lying motionless on the bed. Laurie gave his cousin a firm squeeze, feeling just the hint of that action being returned.
Laurie closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. As he let it out, he opened his eyes, finding Seth gazing his way. Laurie couldn’t tell if Seth was focusing on him, but at least Seth had moved his head Laurie’s direction. “Hey, good morning. Or maybe it’s afternoon already. I don’t know what time it is to tell you the truth.” Laurie didn’t know the hour, or even what day it was. All he knew was that this man was still among the living. And that in these moments, Laurie needed to relay the importance of that fact.
Seth nodded weakly, then closed his eyes. He was alive, but only by a thread, which Laurie realized was mostly due to why Seth had fallen so far down the deepest hole Laurie could imagine. Laurie could clasp both of Seth’s hands if he stood, then leaned over the debilitated man in bed. But regardless of the physical proximity, Seth was on the moon, and Laurie was there on Earth, and who in the world could bridge that gap? President Kennedy said by the end of the decade an American would reach that site. But Seth didn’t have seven years; he might have seven weeks if they were lucky. As Seth again weakly gripped Laurie’s hand, the connection was fleeting. But it was now so strongly woven through Laurie that he would move heaven and earth to bring this man back to their family.
Life wasn’t merely eating, breathing, and sleeping. It was participating in the joys, and the sorrows, but not buried in the misery. Seth had been bobbing like a leaky boat in a sea of depression, years spent harming himself, trying to make sense of events that truly held no clear purpose. Laurie wouldn’t dare to analyze all that Seth felt needed answers, nor could he judge his cousin for trying to make sense of what was illogical. Maybe the artist in Seth felt those inquiries required resolution, and perhaps, when Laurie again spoke to Eric, he might ask the painter if he felt similarly challenged. What mattered now was addressing, in the barest terms, the issues that had driven Seth to such horrific actions. Laurie would tell his aunt not to travel. The man lying in this bed was so picked apart, it would only grieve Wilma, as if Seth hadn’t actually survived.
Then Laurie wanted to shake himself; how had he missed this, why hadn’t any of them seen the reason, or at least guessed at it? Were they so distanced from what Sheila’s relatives had witnessed, suffered, then escaped? Maybe Laurie needed to call his cousin Tovah, perhaps speaking with her husband Ben or his parents, who had fled Germany while it was still possible for Jews to exit the country. Then Laurie sighed. It was too late to ascertain that information. Seth didn’t have that kind of time.
For the first time, Laurie saw the situation clearly, and for a few seconds, that vision was frightening. So slender was the cord by which Seth clung to life, making Laurie feel that every passing minute was being wasted while he sat stuck to his seat while Seth tried to make eye contact, but was too weary to meet Laurie’s gaze for more than brief glimpses. Yet, Seth’s blue eyes were sharp, as if he comprehended Laurie’s knowledge. It was hard for Seth to admit, even in glances, all of the turmoil, yet he ached to speak, was clearly dying to share the unbearable weight that had been suffocating him long before Korea. How had he sculpted the figurines, Laurie then wondered, pieces full of hope and healing and…. They had been made as a manner to now reach out for whoever could untangle the mass of confusion and torment, but the right doctor had to be found as quickly as possible. For, Laurie shuddered, as Seth took back his hand, this was the last unsuccessful attempt. Next time, Seth would complete the task.
“I won’t leave you, I’m not going anywhere.” Laurie spoke softly, but with conviction. “I know why and I’m not gonna lose you. I love you, you hear me? We all love you and we can’t lose you.” Laurie fought tears as memories flooded him, from that initial introduction to childhood playtimes, through adolescence and when Seth enlisted, up to sharing cake in Aunt Wilma’s kitchen just months ago. Then Laurie thought of last Thanksgiving, when Seth told him what he saw in the blue barn. That information now fell upon Laurie’s shoulders, and while it was crushing, he was capable of hoisting it. He had to or else it would grind his cousin right into the ground.
Laurie’s athletic build could withstand the pressure, but Seth had been too slight and pensive. Before he was old enough to put all of that into perspective, he’d made the choice to serve his country, which had exacerbated instead of releasing that burden. Now Laurie needed to shield Seth long enough for that man to breathe freely. How many years had he been inhaling the most toxic…. Laurie then felt unable to breathe; was it the humidity? But he knew exactly what it was, and he shivered as oxygen finally hit his lungs. How many Jews had waited for water to fall, but instead gas had surrounded them with nowhere to flee.
His heritage had never felt so tangible, not in a synagogue or at a bris or any other Jewish event. He ate pork without a second thought, rarely celebrated holidays, and had more deeply mourned homosexuals killed by the Nazis than his own people who had been exterminated on an unfathomable scale. No one could truly plumb The Holocaust, it was impossible. Then Laurie inhaled deeply, staring at Seth. He’d tried, although Laurie wasn’t sure why. But he needed to know, because Seth had to face that reason, a force so strong, it was killing him. Was it guilt for being untouched, had he felt a connection to some particular name or personality, did his artistic talent require him to fashion resolution, reasons that to Laurie were far too large for one man to adopt. No single person could take on such unrelenting responsibilities, that was madness. And that madness was strangling the life from Seth, but not if Laurie could stop it.
Yet who could breach this overpowering psychosis? Maybe Seth needed a Jewish psychiatrist, or one schooled in this sort of trauma. Laurie needed to ask Aunt Wilma the religions of Seth’s former doctors, probably they had been Jews, but Laurie needed to know their qualifications. Maybe not too many Jews had worked at Caffey-Miller, he assumed, but that was the past. Seth needed care here in Miami, not that he could be transferred back to Brooklyn anytime soon. He required intense analytical treatment, and certainly no more shock therapy. Most importantly he needed all of this to begin as soon as he was physically able to take it. Once Seth could be moved, Laurie would have in place the best facility in southern Florida. He assumed Miami would be suitable, but he would look northward if necessary. As soon as Seth was strong enough, the appropriate doctor would be waiting.
Laurie’s heart pounded, for this was the first time he felt so close to a cure. Although, he sighed, gazing at his now sleeping cousin, Seth teetered over a very delicate precipice. While wellness was in sight, if they didn’t reach it soon, Seth would fall into a valley of…. The valley of death, from which Laurie could never retrieve him. Now that notion gave Laurie chills, although just hours ago Laurie had allowed the idea, unpleasant yes, but certainly not the worst. Suddenly to lose Seth was akin to turning one’s head to another victim of Nazi terrorism. Laurie wouldn’t share any of this with Stanford; that man didn’t have the capacity to understand. Maybe with Eric, Laurie permitted. Eric would be receptive both as an artist, and Laurie smiled, as a Christian, even one newly minted. And maybe Eric could relay this to Sam, who would understand as a solider and Catholic. For the first time, Laurie grasped at his religion, not as a balm but a strength. He needed to talk to Sheila’s relatives, especially the woman who had unwittingly brought them all to this place. But Laurie didn’t mean a stark Miami hospital room. Laurie felt he was on ground zero, but the space was shrinking even as he stood there. He needed to find a safe spot for Seth to rest. Then hopefully, if God was willing, they would move forward from there.
Laurie stayed at Seth’s bedside for another hour. They spoke little, but shared brief squeezes, during which Laurie hoped to give Seth some relief. Once Seth was sleeping, Laurie drove back to Mickey and Sheila’s. He called his aunt, telling Wilma to stay where she was, but asking her to look into the doctors in Vermont; were they Jewish? Then Laurie spoke to his mother, noting that he would be in Miami for the unforeseeable future. Rose pestered him for details, but he had none to give her, other than he felt Seth would be best treated in the South. After that he ate lunch, then he called Stanford. That conversation was stilted, although Laurie longed to open his heart. He didn’t, not merely because of propriety; there was no way for Laurie to explain all that needed to be relayed. Even if Stanford was Jewish he still might not want to know; Laurie wasn’t sure his mom and aunt could fully comprehend what now seemed so obvious. Stanford sighed that Laurie didn’t have a firm date to return, but he didn’t want Laurie to rush. They ended their conversation on a rather formal note, but later Laurie would write to Stanford, telling him how much he loved him. That notion Laurie was eager to share.
During the afternoon, Laurie napped fitfully on the guest bed. He woke still feeling lethargic, but having accepted his presence would be for the duration, he didn’t mind the weariness. For how long had Seth suffered a more debilitating fatigue, as if every breath was taken in vain? No wonder he couldn’t sculpt; how had he managed to even get through the day? Laurie didn’t ponder more than that; to do so would be flirting with the kind of neurosis that he now had to fight with every manner possible. Other than shock therapy, Laurie would permit even the most novel treatments. But he hoped that traditional counseling sessions would start to give Seth peace. Other than at Thanksgiving, Seth had never talked about what troubled him. Perhaps his torment had so many triggers, or that they were rooted in such catastrophe, but if not dealt with now, Seth would die. Laurie took a shower, washing off sleep and sweat and the sense of helplessness. That had dogged him for too long; he needed to be fresh and sharp. As he dressed, again in shorts and a t-shirt, he smiled, wishing that Stanford was there. They wouldn’t talk about Seth, but around Stanford Laurie could express very significant emotions. Of course they wouldn’t stay at the Goldsmiths’ house. They would have two rooms at a hotel. But the closeness would have bolstered Laurie, even if he’d had to stay tight-lipped about other issues.
He found his aunt and uncle in the living room, watching television. Sheila stood, then asked if he was hungry. Laurie noted that indeed he was, and he chuckled inwardly as he followed her to the kitchen. Food was a cure-all, or at least it was to a Jewish mother. Sam Ahern might agree, and Laurie wished for some of Sam’s pork chops. Laurie might leave Miami with a deeper appreciation for his heritage, but he could never go Kosher. Sam’s talent with a chop was too magical.
As Sheila filled a plate, Laurie sat at the table, staring aimlessly into the room. He would live in this house until Seth was well or…. Maybe Stanford would visit, the time apart wouldn’t be easy on either of them. Laurie would have to inform his clients, but fortunately no exhibits were scheduled. The rest of summer had only offered a trip westward and Laurie did lament missing that event. Would Stanford go alone, or maybe Michael would accompany him. Stan might not want to leave the East Coast, but Laurie hoped that he would travel west, if nothing else than to fill empty time. Laurie didn’t think he’d be leaving Florida soon. He had several tasks to perform, the first being to speak to Sheila’s cousin. Laurie couldn’t recall her name and he wasn’t sure for how much longer she was visiting. Sheila set a plate in front of him, making Laurie grin. Potato salad and three deviled eggs bordered several slices of cold chicken, making Laurie’s stomach rumble. Sheila then brought him a glass of iced tea. “It’s sweet,” she said. “I hope that’s all right.”
“This looks wonderful. Thank you so much.” Laurie dug in and while Sheila didn’t join him at the table, she made several stops, asking if he needed more. Laurie ate every bite, then gladly accepted a slice of pineapple upside down cake. It wasn’t comparable to the treats in Brooklyn, but satisfied his sweet tooth. He finished the tea, then sat back, wondering how much weight he would put on. He would have to walk in the mornings, when it was cool. Then Sheila returned. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.
He motioned to the chair across. “That was absolutely delicious. I had no idea I was so hungry.”
“It was just leftovers. Too hot to cook anything today.” She smiled. “Well, I did bake early this morning. Mickey loves upside down cake. Although….” She paused, then gazed intently at Laurie. “He says Wilma makes this chocolate cake that their mother always baked. Says that Rose doesn’t have the recipe.” Sheila clasped her hands together, placing them on the table. She gazed around the room as if looking for something. “You think Wilma might give me the recipe?”
Laurie fought a belly laugh, but a chuckle did escape. “To tell you the truth, Aunt Wilma’s going to the grave with that one. I don’t think she’ll give it to her daughters.”
Sheila stared at Laurie. “Not even to her own girls?”
Laurie nodded. “She’d worry one of them would break down and give it to Mom.”
Sheila rolled her eyes. “Well goodness. Hmmm. That seems a little, well….” Sheila smiled, then removed her hands from the table. “Well, thank God Mickey prefers upside down cake.” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, nodding her head. Then she looked at Laurie. “I hope you like pineapple.”
“It was the perfect dessert.” He smiled broadly, then patted his stomach for effect. “The tea too. Suppose that’s the ideal southern beverage.”
“Oh, it’s southern all right.” Sheila grinned. “We drink a lot of it, but my aunts and uncles never did get into it. They prefer water, no ice.” She made a face, then shrugged her shoulders. “Sort of plain, but if it makes them happy, who am I to say?”
Her tone suggested that she made that excuse often. When Seth was better, Laurie would ask if who am I to say was one of Sheila’s catchphrases. The words had slipped from her tongue like she said them countless times a day, also like she was living in two worlds. Laurie felt a door had been opened and he gently cleared his throat as if a few crumbs were caught. He drained what remained in his glass, only melted ice water, but it washed down the imaginary crumbs. “So Aunt Sheila, what can you tell me about, oh goodness, I can’t remember her name.”
Laurie used a voice he sometimes employed with his mother or aunt about a distant relative, generally offered as a show of respect. Yet Seth’s very life hinged upon this information and Laurie had to start gathering it as quickly as he could.
Now Sheila fidgeted, again placing her clasped hands upon the table. “Cousin Norah, you mean.”
“I think that’s her. She hasn’t been in Miami long, correct?”
Sheila sighed, then cracked her knuckles. “Just a couple of months. She’s leaving in a few days, been staying with Aunt Deb. She’s not really related to me, I mean, she’s a distant cousin, you know.”
Laurie nodded. Sheila spoke as if she was guilty by association, but it wasn’t her fault that Seth was in the hospital. Nor was it this Norah’s fault either. “She’s visiting from Jerusalem or from….”
“She lives there, uh-huh. But she’s from….” Now Sheila paused and Laurie had to fight a smile. She reminded him of Renee when she had spoken the lord’s name in vain and needed to cross herself. She did that often, or at least Laurie had caught her doing it the last time he’d been at the Snyders. That had been for Jane’s baptism, but Renee had probably done it over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend when Jane was born. Then Laurie sighed; the last time he’d been west wasn’t for the baptism, but Eric’s show. Yet that trip had carried a heavy sorrow, no wonder he’d blocked it. Jane’s birth and baptism were far happier events, and Laurie wished he could be in two places at once. But when Seth was better, then Laurie could spend time in the Snyders’ garden, sharing pie with not only one little girl, but maybe two. Or a tiny boy, who probably wouldn’t look like Seth. Eric and Lynne’s children would possess different features. Laurie smiled, then frowned; Sheila had kept talking, but he hadn’t paid attention. What about this Norah had he missed, hopefully nothing important. Where she was from in Germany mattered little, he assumed she was German. But her identity was steeped in their shared Jewish culture. Or perhaps culture was too intimate. Laurie’s life had few claims on Norah’s, other than that both were Jewish. Had she spent time in a labor camp or had she found a safe way out of Europe? He shuddered to think she’d been incarcerated, but it was certainly possible.
“Anyways,” Sheila continued, “they spent a lot of time together. Of course she feels bad, but it’s not her fault. He’s….” Sheila raised her eyebrows, then shrugged. “No offense Laurie, I mean, he needs professional help or shock therapy. I hear it works wonders.”
Laurie gazed sharply at her. “It didn’t do anything for him before.”
“Well, maybe they did it differently up there.” Disdain edged her tone, as if up there indicated more than a geographic location. Treatment by non-Jews was what she meant, but maybe she was right. Seth might be better served by a doctor steeped in Jewish issues as well as educated in psychiatric healing.
“If nothing else,” Sheila mused, “Norah knows there’s someone worse off than her. I mean, she’s managed to come to terms with everything. This must have something to do with his time in Korea.” Sheila cracked her knuckles again, then wore a relieved smile. She nodded for added effect. “He never should’ve enlisted. I’m surprised Wilma let him.”
“Seth made that decision himself. There wasn’t anything Aunt Wilma could’ve done to stop him.” Laurie’s tone was firm. All of them had advised Seth to reconsider his plan, but he was free, white, and over twenty-one, what some men in the family had noted, often in Laurie’s hearing. The phrase had carried a double meaning, but Laurie had ignored those insults. He also felt that while serving in the army hadn’t been helpful, that stint didn’t account for what Seth now suffered, or not fully. Then Laurie took a deep breath. “Aunt Sheila, what exactly happened to Norah?”
If Sheila had mentioned it, Laurie had been distracted. But in how she again fidgeted, not meeting his gaze, Laurie knew she had glossed over that detail. He stared at her until she finally met his eyes. Hers were teary, making him sweat. But he had to know; Seth’s life depended on this information.
“She’s a survivor, from Auschwitz.” Sheila’s voice was flat, but tears rolled down her cheeks. “She made it to Bergen-Belsen, God only knows how. She never talks about it, but he saw her tattoo. I guess she felt he might understand, or maybe he just kept asking her about it. He spent a lot of time at Aunt Deb’s, at first I thought maybe he and Norah, you know….” Sheila permitted a brief smile, then shook her head. “I told him maybe he needed to take a break, maybe we could drive up to Orlando or Tampa even, get away from here for a bit.” She paused, but this time Laurie paid attention. Sheila leaned back in her chair, folding her arms over her chest. “I thought he’d do better down here, around his family.” She said family like all of their religion was bound within one word. “But now, huh.” She stared around the room as if seeking answers. Then she met Laurie’s gaze. “Norah was one of a handful, a basic handful that lived. How many were lost, oh my God.” Sheila shook her head. “She went from Auschwitz to Mittelbau to Bergen-Belsen, three camps, three camps!” Sheila raised her arms, gesturing to nothing in particular. “Three camps,” she repeated, “and she’s fine. So what if she doesn’t wanna talk about it? Who wants to hear about it, you know?”
Laurie gazed around the room, comfort all around him. He couldn’t fathom the horrors Norah had suffered, but Seth had needed to hear about them. What had Norah told him, or maybe it was merely the tattoo which she would always display. Laurie wasn’t even sure if he wanted to speak to her, he didn’t wish to upset her. More important to him was how Seth had absorbed her trials.
Laurie didn’t say anything as words seemed useless. He stood, then pulled out the chair beside his aunt. Opening his arms, he grasped the shaking, weeping woman, noticing how his uncle didn’t join them. Sheila wasn’t quiet, but Laurie didn’t mind comforting her. At least she wept, and he did too. They would never understand such misery, maybe they weren’t meant to. But if Seth had felt that was his calling, enlisting in the army hadn’t been the way to go forward. In fact, Laurie thought, still cradling his trembling aunt, it had been the wrong road. How to set Seth on the right path was another uncertain hurdle, but now Laurie had some sense of direction. The trail was dark and rocky, but he would stick it out. He could do nothing less and he sighed, then prayed for guidance. If God had brought Norah out of three death camps, maybe he could work a similar miracle for the man Laurie loved.
Stirring from sleep, Seth could hear Laurie’s inhalations. Seth wasn’t sure how many days Laurie had been in Miami; in one way time had ceased to matter from the moment Seth spotted Norah’s tattoo. He wasn’t exactly sure when she’d received it, although he knew those numbers had been issued in Poland. He’d read so much about Auschwitz, the name seemed arbitrary. She’d never said where else she might have been confined, not while they made love at various motels or while walking through the Myersons’ neighborhood as dusk turned into the darkest night. Yet those digits were unique to her. Her name was Norah Wasserman and for the rest of her life her history would be displayed in green ink, never erased by time.
Yet now time moved along in a blinding fashion, which was different to Seth’s previous lapses into depression. The tattoo had become a fixation for him, and while initially he’d tried not to stare at it, it had been impossible to ignore. For after the party, Norah didn’t attempt to hide it, or she hadn’t around him. Seth never asked if she wore sleeveless dresses during the day, but her arms were bare every evening they walked together. And on the nights he took her to a motel, after they were behind the locked door, she wore absolutely nothing. They made love countless times, but Seth’s attention wasn’t merely focused upon her sensuality. Once again he had access to why and yet…. How often had he traced over those numerals, but Norah hadn’t spoken. There was nothing for her to say, other than whispering his name as if he might forget it. For a while he had; shock therapy had erased a vile truth, but the tattoo had reminded him of why. Seth blinked, the overhead light was bright. Then Laurie cleared his throat, making Seth flinch. Laurie scraped the chair legs against the tile, but that sound didn’t bother Seth. He knew it troubled Laurie, then Seth shook his head. He wanted his cousin to go home. There was nothing more Laurie could do.
Initially Seth had been surprised to wake again in yet another hospital. He wasn’t certain how doctors had revived him, but at least his mother wasn’t there, he didn’t want to hurt her. He wanted this to end, because it wasn’t going to stop any other way. Norah couldn’t soothe his mind, her tattoo wouldn’t be forgotten, and Seth was tired. Never before had the end beckoned so clearly, and while suicide might be immoral compared to the tattoo, death was the only manner possible for Seth to not have to think anymore. He’d spent all of his adult life hiding from why and what did it matter now; the tattoo was permanent, he couldn’t sculpt, and here was Laurie once again trailing after him. Seth smiled, feeling so much older than his cousin. He’d felt older than Norah too, another quandary. He felt…. “Laurie, go home,” he muttered. Then Seth took a deep breath. The oxygen settled within his chest in holes desperate for air. Yet, as he exhaled, guilt and emptiness overwhelmed. If Laurie did leave, Seth would have no one to consider.
Laurie smiled, then shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere unless you get off your keister and kick me out.”
Seth smiled, but the pain associated with that mirth was crushing. He didn’t try to hide the agony because Laurie thought he knew the cause. Laurie had spent much of…. Was it yesterday or the day before, but then time truly held no meaning. Laurie had told Seth many things, much of it related to why Seth was in that hospital, and that once he was discharged, Laurie was going to take him to a place where doctors could properly care for him. Was Laurie aware of how many times he’d used the word properly, like he’d found a cure? But there was no cure, because now Seth remembered. As Norah would die with her tattoo, Seth would never forget why he’d enlisted, and there was nothing Laurie could do about that either.
Now Laurie grasped Seth’s left hand. Laurie’s skin was warm, but then it was hot all the time. Why had Norah come to Florida in summer, Seth wondered, then he closed his eyes. She was here now so he could…. She was his way out. Seth just needed half an hour alone. He would reopen these wounds and…. Laurie offered a strong squeeze, which made Seth ache. Why wouldn’t Laurie let him go, why did he feel so responsible? There was nothing Laurie could do, damn him. But Seth was too weak to take back his hand and while he hated admitting it, Laurie’s grip was calming. Seth had never wanted to hurt Laurie in this process. But pain and loss were relative, because Norah had never asked for her tattoo, and sometimes Seth wondered if she felt as he did. She had survived, but why?
Suddenly Seth shivered and managed to wrest his hand from Laurie’s. The blue barn again popped into Seth’s head, a painting he loved, but no longer wished to consider. Why had Eric painted it, not that Seth wondered how; it had been another of Eric’s flights at a hawk. But when he was again a man, why had he chosen to depict that particular scene? Seth ached deeply; he had refused pain medication. But the soreness of his arms had nothing on the wrenching within his chest, bound in the love he felt for Laurie and the guilt. And for how easily it seemed that Eric could excise his demons by placing them on canvas. And how beautifully he had done so; how many were truly aware of the outstanding majesty of that blue barn and all who were held safely within it?
Now Seth struggled to sit up, he didn’t want that image in his mind. He wanted this to end, his life and Laurie’s devotion and…. “Get me out of here,” he said with as much strength as he could. Then he laughed. “Oh God, just leave. Please, I can’t take this anymore.”
As Seth looked up, Laurie was merely a foot away. They stared at each other and Seth wanted to cry. His cousin’s green eyes were awash in tears, which poured down Laurie’s cheeks, falling onto his collar. Laurie grasped Seth’s hands, not bothering to wipe his face. “I won’t leave you.”
Laurie’s plaintive voice made Seth shake his head. “You can’t do anything. Whatdya think you can do, huh?”
Now Laurie stroked Seth’s face. “I can’t leave, okay?” Then Laurie chuckled, finally brushing away tears that still fell. “I’m stuck to the goddamn chair.”
Seth stared at his cousin; Laurie wore shorts, maybe he was telling the truth. “Wear pants next time.”
“Too hot,” Laurie laughed. Then he leaned back. “Do you really wanna die?”
Seth nodded, then gazed at Laurie, who had never spoken so blatantly. “You know I do. Don’t know why I keep screwing it up though.”
“I don’t think God wants you dead.”
Now Seth stared long and hard at the man beside him. “God huh?” Seth snorted, then gazed at the wall. “God doesn’t care about….”
“Seth, why are you still alive?”
No one had ever asked him that question, although Seth had certainly pondered it. But he never attached any sacred purpose to it. He had no assumptions to his continued state of being, fragile or somewhat manageable, artistic or plebian. He looked back at his cousin, a man with so many reasons for joy. Stanford was at the top of Laurie’s list, then his work, their family, the Snyders…. Seth had to include those people because of Eric’s paintings at Caffey-Miller as well as the blue barn. And the hawks, so many hawks, but Laurie didn’t know about those. If he did, maybe he’d be in the same state as Seth, one step away from….
“I don’t know why I’m still here. I don’t wanna be.” Not even the blue barn soothed the pain anymore. Once that canvas had been shipped to Europe, Seth had felt a disconnection, the first time he’d noticed that particular ache. Maybe being on the same continent as that painting had eased Seth, but now it was far away, all those people inside returned to soil they never imagined again revisiting. Then Seth laughed. He was crazy, his life was ridiculous. Men didn’t turn into hawks; they killed people in death camps or on battlefields. Laurie’s devotion was irrelevant, nothing meant anything, all life was….
Again Laurie had gripped Seth’s hand, but this time Laurie grasped with purpose. “I can’t let you die. Too much’s been wasted. If you really wanna end it, you’re gonna have to do it after I’m dead. Maybe that’s unfair, but damnit, I will not sit back and let you kill yourself. I love you too much and I know you’re still in there. You have so much to give, to do, to….”
Seth had closed his eyes long before Laurie stopped speaking. The urge to create was like a blocked memory that surprisingly still flickered. For the last few years that gleam had been associated with the barn, like Eric was holding it, alongside the rest, for safekeeping. But Seth didn’t feel that spark anymore. Norah’s tattoo had been like a mirror, making Seth feel sick inside. He felt that way now, considering all she had suffered alongside what he had inflicted. Then Seth blinked; those months in Minnesota had been a brief reprieve, Eric’s two paintings a balm upon Seth’s parched soul. And on his scorched mind, which had enabled him to fashion the figurines within the hospital. Seth gazed at his hands, which weren’t covered in gauze. How had these appendages been used for such contrasting tasks, to create and to murder?
Opening his eyes, he looked toward his window. Several small birds perched upon the sill outside, pecking along the building. “Laurie, who knows I’m here?”
Laurie looked startled by the question. “Uh, just family. Why?”
“Only our family?”
Laurie raised his eyebrows, but so slightly, Seth wasn’t sure Laurie realized he’d done it. “I talked to Eric Snyder about it. I think he was gonna tell Sam Ahern.” Laurie sighed, then flashed the hint of a smile. “I’m sure they told their wives. But other than them and whoever Mom and Aunt Wilma told, I can’t say.”
Seth nodded, then gazed back at the birds. “How did Eric take it?”
Laurie didn’t answer immediately and Seth kept staring at the window. Laurie cracked his knuckles, then sighed. “He was pretty upset to be truthful. I haven’t spoken to him since. I should call him, although there’s not much to add. Stan’s probably talked to him in the interim.”
Seth nodded, still keeping his face from Laurie’s view. Seth wore a crooked smile, his thoughts somewhat mischievous. Never before had he pondered such a notion, but what if one of those creatures wasn’t merely a bird? Would Eric fly all the way to Florida, could he even? “Laurie, what month is it?”
“What? Um, June, I think.” Then Laurie chuckled. “Could be October for all I know.”
Now Seth turned to face Laurie, finding a twinkle in his cousin’s eyes. The brightness teased, as if daring Seth to match even a fraction of the hope Laurie carried. How could he be so optimistic, Seth wondered. But if not for that expectation, Laurie wouldn’t be sitting there. He’d have gone back to New York by now. Seth didn’t lament his mother and sisters’ absences; they’d had the good sense to stay in Brooklyn. This man had flown all the way to Miami, but would he be the only one?
He would on a plane, Seth permitted. Then Seth cracked a smile, he couldn’t help it. “Laurie, what’d Eric say to you, about me, I mean.”
Laurie inhaled, then exhaled slowly. “He said that he and Lynne were praying for you. And that he wanted to be kept informed. I really should call him. Stan doesn’t need to play intermediary.”
“What’ll you tell him?”
Now Laurie smiled. “What should I tell him?”
Seth stared at his arms, then to the window, where now no birds waited. He kept his gaze there, but spoke forcefully. “Tell him….” It was a gamble, Seth accepted, maybe not worth Seth’s time. But perhaps he owed himself, and Laurie, one last chance. And while Eric couldn’t actually tell Seth how he painted the blue barn, wouldn’t it be strange to see a hawk appearing wherever Seth ended up next. Could it happen, he wondered. “Tell him the truth. Or tell him whatever you want, I guess.” Seth shivered, then looked at his cousin. “I really don’t know him, so whatever you feel’s best.”
“I think you know him better than you let on. He certainly knows you well enough. He knew the figurines were yours right off the bat, although he had no idea you’d done them so young.”
Seth nodded, then closed his eyes. He could recall the day he formed those sculptures, probably in the same manner that Laurie always claimed he remembered the day Seth was brought home from the hospital. Maybe Seth’s recollections were more acceptable; he’d been a teenager at the time, but many memories were lost due to shock therapy. However the man and woman, she in her skirt, he with that bad foot, were indelibly woven through Seth. He’d created them in a brief flash of exuberance, like a master’s hands were using his. Other beautiful pieces had followed up to the time when Seth decided to enlist. He couldn’t recall the other figures, but that one couple he would forever remember. The day he forgot them, he sighed, would truly be the end of his life.
He opened his eyes, seeing one small bird on the sill. If Eric came, Seth wouldn’t be at this hospital. Would Eric find him or would he locate Laurie, then follow him to wherever Seth resided. Was it fair to take Eric from his family, but none of this held any rational claim on equity. All of it was madness, it was….
Laurie now blocked Seth’s view of the window. He knelt between the bed and wall, grabbing Seth’s right hand. “You still have the power to create. I know it was years ago, but that hasn’t been lost. It’s trapped here, where you are. I just want you to be free.”
Laurie had placed his hand on Seth’s chest, bringing a fleeting peace to Seth’s pounding heart. Seth wanted to nod, he did wish to be…. How could he ever know real peace? Yet years ago he’d been happy; he could recall that sensation like it was yesterday. Those hands upon his, invisible to all, had gently but purposefully molded dead lumps into living people. Had the same hands been laid upon Norah, in Auschwitz, keeping her alive?
Seth shook, but wasn’t aware. He wept, but had no idea. Only Laurie’s hug told him something had altered. Laurie now sat on the mattress, his arms like those guiding hands, but Laurie’s embrace held together an actual human being. Seth continued to tremble, now wanting to beg Laurie not to call Eric. But Seth couldn’t speak, so deep were his cries. The bird remained on the windowsill, seemingly unbothered, until one loud howl drove it away.
When Laurie called the Snyders that afternoon, Eric was away, but Lynne took the message, which wasn’t more than Laurie wanted to speak to Eric when he had some free time. Lynne relayed that her husband was at the Aherns’, sketching Sam and the Chevy, but that he’d call Laurie when he got home. Laurie asked Lynne how she was feeling, and they chatted briefly. Then Laurie closed the call, again thanking Lynne for her prayers. He didn’t mention Eric in that sentence, which made Lynne smile as she placed the receiver back in the cradle. Somehow even a man as free spirited as Laurie Abrams still considered religion more of a woman’s preoccupation.
Lynne pondered that as she made Jane’s lunch, then ate her own. Lynne purposefully didn’t mull over what Laurie wanted to tell Eric; it would have little bearing on a man already with one foot out the door. Since Stanford’s call, Lynne had been mentally prepared for her husband to bolt from their home, his return unknown. Hopefully Eric would be back before Christmas, but for how debilitated Seth was, Lynne wouldn’t harbor any timetables. She was feeling a little less weepy, which had been a surprise. Perhaps that initial symptom would have by now disappeared regardless of Stanford’s news. Or maybe Lynne had steeled herself for what she, Eric, Sam, and Renee knew was inevitable. Even Marek seemed aware, for he had spent considerable time with Eric after church last Sunday, and had invited the Snyders to St. Matthew’s for dinner. They had declined the invite; Eric only left their house to sketch Sam. Lynne expected that after today, Eric would have enough drawings to start that painting. But its completion wasn’t a given, at least not right now. The only tangible notions Lynne could grasp were the child clamoring for more food and the one within her stirring a mother’s nausea.
But morning sickness was also abating; Lynne felt this pregnancy was easier than how Jane’s life had started, which alleviated some of the surrounding restlessness. Eric was edgy, working non-stop on the Queens’ series during the day, then painting Lynne’s portraits in the evening once Jane was asleep. He even managed to capture their daughter at dinnertime, Jane smiling in her high chair as Eric’s food grew cold. Lynne didn’t scold him; he was attempting to juggle as many projects as was feasible, and now that included the risky venture of stepping outside the privacy of their property. Yet he hadn’t wanted to paint Sam at any other location; Eric needed to do this work in front of the Aherns’ home as if reclaiming his humanity. Lynne hadn’t argued with him about it. Actually they spoke very little, but now she had something to tell him, and she wondered how he would react concerning Laurie’s rather vague message. It was as if Laurie was again speaking in code, the way Lynne used to discern within his letters what he couldn’t write. As Jane began to quiet, Lynne prayed for two men in Florida. She didn’t bother to inquire if Eric would soon join them.
After laying down Jane for a nap, Lynne tidied the kitchen, then sat on the sofa. She closed her eyes, but even though sleep beckoned, many thoughts kept her awake. She peered around the room; a few letters had arrived and while Lynne had left them out for Eric to see, most likely they would be added to the growing pile in the office upstairs. For a few days Eric had let the mail gather on the dining table, as if he had plans to answer those notes. Then Lynne moved them all upstairs, no use for them to take up space or weigh on Eric’s mind. Lynne had considered asking if he wanted her to reply in his stead, but then she would get distracted, an item not essential. When they spoke, only necessary details were shared. When he came home today, however, she would mention it. Lynne assumed that after Eric called Laurie, there might be little time left for a husband and wife to do more than make love.
Intimacy had taken precedence when Eric wasn’t painting. If Jane was asleep, the couple was in bed, and Lynne ached, thinking about sleeping alone. Well, she wasn’t truly solitary, as a slight wave of nausea rolled through her. Then she smiled, unable to keep that joy hidden. This sojourn would be the hardest on the one absent. This time Lynne had plenty to keep her company.
She laid her palm over her belly; she wasn’t showing, but how quickly had this child muscled his or her way into Lynne’s consciousness. Perhaps that was how second pregnancies went for any woman. Lynne had been in denial when Jane had first been conceived, but now a mother relished even the unpleasant moments, although Lynne rarely vomited. And now that she wasn’t so prone to tearful outbursts, then Lynne sighed. Maybe after Eric left, those unstable eruptions would return. But if they did, those closest to her would understand. She hadn’t considered making excuses for Eric’s absence to their St. Matthew’s acquaintances. If they asked, she would tell them he was on a painting sabbatical, what she planned to tell Fran Canfield as well. Lynne didn’t ponder any more than that, no use fretting needlessly.
She closed her eyes, then drifted to sleep, dreaming of stacks of mail collecting on the table. Lynne woke to her husband’s soft voice, finding his smile as she opened her eyes. Eric looked refreshed and for a moment Lynne forgot all that swirled around them. Then she noticed wrinkles around his eyes; were they new? She stroked his cheek, which was ruddy from all the time he’d spent in the studio, and maybe from the last few days sketching Sam. Then she shivered; soon enough he’d be out in the elements. She needed to tell him about Laurie’s phone call. But first, Lynne permitted her husband’s affections.
Eric didn’t speak as he sat beside her, then wrapped her against him. Lynne closed her eyes again, feeling as if she was melting into him, he was so warm. His kisses landed along her face, then her neck, while his hands traveled along her back, gentle caresses that felt as if they had all the time in the world. Maybe they were back in New York, maybe they were college students again. Lynne felt that unfettered as Eric tenderly reminded her how deep were his feelings for her. If not for Jane sleeping overhead, Lynne imagined Eric would strip the clothes both were wearing and make love to her right on the sofa.
Lynne maneuvered herself into a reclined position and Eric lay atop her, but neither attempted to undress. They necked passionately, making Lynne forget that she was expecting a second child, much less a mother already. As she made overtures for intercourse, Eric complied, but clothes still acted as a barrier. Lynne didn’t mind; they had made out in this manner when they first met, yet after he told her about turning into a hawk, she had spurned him until witnessing that event. Then they had made love, needing to seal a pact that Eric had never dreamed was possible. Lynne had fully imagined falling in love, getting married, and having a family, but Eric had never considered those possibilities.
As they continued fooling around, Lynne didn’t think about Seth and Laurie; she concentrated on the reality that had indeed come true for the man she loved. Yet, that other part of his existence, dormant for ages, was now hovering. Eric began to unbutton Lynne’s blouse, and she tried to concentrate on his actions, those of a normal human man. They were married and loved one another desperately. Eric was now quite needy and Lynne was too. If Jane stirred, Lynne chuckled inwardly, it would be Eric to head up the stairs, for he was still dressed.
But Jane remained asleep as her parents delved further into their shared passions. Eric didn’t remove his clothing, only his wife’s. Lynne accepted her husband’s generosity, wondering when she could reciprocate. Perhaps they would forgo the roles of artist and model that evening, especially after the telephone call that Lynne knew needed to take place. Maybe after speaking to Laurie, Eric would then spend the rest of the night allowing Lynne to display her emotions. Those feelings ran so deeply within her, culminating in the baby she carried. She came to that notion, weeping tears of joy and gratitude. Eric wiped her face, then lay upon her, kissing her cheeks. “I love you baby,” he whispered, brushing aside stray hairs. “Oh Lynne, I love you so much.”
She nodded, unable to speak, yet for how many more days and nights would they be able to love like this, for how long would they be separated? While she rued his expected absence, Lynne was grateful to be aware. She immediately gave thanks for such oddities, then she smiled. “When can we continue this?”
“I’d say right now,” Eric laughed, “but I know as soon as we go up those stairs, someone will hear us. Tonight, oh my God, as soon as she’s in her crib.”
Lynne giggled, then bit her lip. She wanted to tell him about Laurie’s call, but didn’t want to lose the lightness of that moment. “How did the sketching go?” she asked instead.
Eric sighed, then chuckled. “Well, I did change his pose. He put his hands in his pockets for about two seconds, which gave me just enough time to put that on paper. Better than how he’s had his arms over his chest for the last two days.”
Lynne nodded, imagining Sam making that slight adjustment, not thinking Eric would catch it. “Are you about done, with the sketching I mean?”
“Yeah. He was making noises that the next few days were gonna be busy. But that’s okay. I can start painting tomorrow, see how it goes.”
She nodded, then stroked his face. He looked aged, but maybe it was all that time in the sun. Then she began to cry, unsure if her tears were hormonal or from…. “Eric, Laurie called earlier. He wants you to call him back.”
Silence permeated the room; if Jane woke, her shouts would sound like gongs, Lynne considered. Eric didn’t blink, his eyes wide. Lynne shut hers for a moment and when she opened them, Eric had closed his. He took several deep breaths, but didn’t move away. “What did he say?” Eric asked in a somber tone.
“Just that he wanted to speak to you. That was it, so I really don’t know more than that.”
Eric nodded, then opened his eyes. He moved away from Lynne, then sat at the end of the sofa. Lynne didn’t move, as if she was posing for him; he looked at her the way he did when she was stretched over the chaise lounge, or how she used to lay on the studio couch. He didn’t meet her gaze, but all of his focus was upon her. Lynne stared at his eyes, which were wide, taking in all he possibly could.
She wondered what he was thinking; he wasn’t considering painting her portrait, far more to ponder than his craft. Was he mulling over how far he had to fly, the season ahead, or was he simply trying to maintain his humanity. Years before, when he knew a departure was imminent, he’d attempted to remain as a man by sheer force of will. He’d never found success; his alterations were beyond his capacity to control. This one was no different, but the scope would surpass any previous trip. Florida was all the way across the country and while it was summer now, maybe Lynne wouldn’t see her husband again until next spring. Their baby would have arrived; he would miss that event, not to mention how much Jane would change. Suddenly Lynne understood the weight of Eric’s regrets. He didn’t want to go, not even if it meant improving Seth’s mental health. No reason existed to appease Eric, not a single one.
Lynne leaned up, sitting on her skirt. She was completely nude, how had Eric removed all of her apparel? He had loved her so thoroughly as if he knew Laurie had called, that this disruption was imminent. Would Lynne have one more opportunity to make love with her husband? If she did, she wanted to leave him so breathless and sated that for those moments this part of his life was erased. Was that even possible, she wondered, grasping his hand, which felt cool to the touch. Maybe not even she had that ability.
“I love you.” Her tone was soft, but laced with all the fortitude she could muster. Yet, there was nothing more to add, for those three words carried the weight of all her affections. He nodded, then gripped her hand forcefully. Then he brought it to his lips, kissing the back of it. She blinked away tears; how precious was this man, and how human he was. He was still a human being, but for how much longer?
She didn’t consider how a lengthy absence would affect him; Sam knew what do to when Eric returned and Marek could be called in as back-up. Renee might be taking care of Lynne and a newborn, maybe. Lynne briefly mulled over those options. Then she set them aside. “Eric, lay down.”
He stared at her. “What?”
“You heard me. If Jane wakes, I’ll get her.”
He fought a smile. “You don’t have any clothes on.”
“And in a minute, neither will you. Now lay down and….” Lynne kissed him in a manner that brooked no argument. “We might not have much time,” she added, catching her breath.
How much time wasn’t broached as Eric complied with his wife’s wishes. The couple didn’t use words as Lynne displayed her affections. Jane slept through that encounter, then napped a little longer as Eric wrapped Lynne close, expending some of his grief. By the time a little girl awoke, her mother was fixing pie crust while her father sat at the patio table, studying sketches that might or might not find their way onto canvas. Lynne knew that for however long Eric remained with them, painting would fall by the wayside, unless it was a portrait of the family Eric was destined to leave behind.
For two days Eric worked in the studio, but his efforts produced mixed results. Initially he had painted Sam with that man’s hands shoved in his pockets. But Eric painted over that pose, returning Sam’s arms to guarding his chest. Yet, as Lynne studied the canvas, she noted to her husband how she could still see the afterimage of Sam’s hands thrust into his jeans’ front pockets. Eric agreed, then he started outlining the Chevy, and by the end of the second afternoon much of the car was detailed. Lynne and Jane had joined Eric in the studio and Lynne wondered when Eric returned if he would scrap this entire canvas and start over. Yet, she said nothing, watching her husband frantically yet unsuccessfully attempt to bring to life a painting he’d been longing to create. As he set down his brushes, Eric remarked that tomorrow he wanted to spend the day working in the garden. Lynne nodded, then took Jane to the house to start the evening meal.
That night Marek stopped by, his presence a welcome distraction. He told stories of again being on Mrs. Harmon’s bad side; weeds were infiltrating the flower beds as if Marek’s position wasn’t more than the church gardener. Lynne heard weariness in the pastor’s tone and she wasn’t sure how much was to do with a fussy meddler or Eric’s pensive mood. When Eric asked Marek to take a walk outside, Lynne noted how her pastor moved slowly from his chair, his steps like lead weights had been attached to his feet. The men didn’t return until it was dark outside and Jane was almost asleep. Marek blew her a kiss as Lynne took the baby upstairs. When a mother left the nursery, she found the office light shining down the hallway. The pastor and Eric were again in deep discussion, over what Lynne assumed were some of the recent letters from Scandinavian. She had made out postmarks from Norway, but maybe Marek could better discern those that neither Lynne nor Eric could distinguish.
That morning Eric had spoken to Stanford strictly about the exhibit, which was moving soon to Sweden. How fluent was Marek in those tongues, Lynne wondered, as she went downstairs into the kitchen. She started the dishes and by the time the drainer was full, Marek stepped into the room. “Your husband’s right behind me,” Marek smiled. “My goodness that’s a lot of post to answer.”
Lynne nodded, then removed the rubber gloves. She glanced at the clock; it was nearly ten p.m. Usually Marek didn’t stay so late, but Lynne didn’t question it. “I asked him yesterday if he wanted me to act as secretary, he said he wasn’t sure.” She didn’t mind saying something so blatant to Marek; in a way, Lynne relished being able to speak about what was coming. Never before had she been given the opportunity to do so.
Before rumbled through her head, then she smiled, walking toward Marek, who stood near the table. He didn’t know how this kitchen used to look, how the whole home had once appeared. But as he was privy to the biggest secret Eric and Lynne concealed, maybe Lynne expected that of course Marek could also view this residence with a similar gaze. Maybe he could imagine how Sam had stood in the smaller version of this room, dripping water on the linoleum, furious at how Lynne had convinced Renee that Eric turned into a….
“I suppose the letters will pile up,” Marek said softly, interrupting Lynne’s thoughts.
She smiled, then sighed. “I suppose they will. He told me not to worry about them. But I do feel bad for not replying.”
“Don’t fret over it. I’d wager that nearly all who send their regards aren’t expecting the artist to answer them. They might not even imagine the letters would reach their destination. It’s more of the need to respond to how moving are Eric’s paintings. Unfortunately I’m hopeless with Scandinavian languages.” Marek chuckled. “Once the tour goes south, I’ll be more help again.”
“Do you speak Italian?” Lynne asked.
“Oh yes,” he smiled. “Spanish too. But my Portuguese is abysmal.”
Lynne giggled. Eric had given the pastor the full itinerary, or that which remained. The tour had been extended, but as far as Lynne knew, the paintings were due back in America by the end of the year. She didn’t consider where Eric might be then, instead she wondered if Stanford might arrange another New York showing. “I only speak English,” she said. “I must say I feel quite limited.”
“It’s a gift,” Marek smiled. “A blessing that I need to put into use, actually. Eric gave me permission to read the letters, or those I could make out. But he insisted that neither of us were to answer them. He said we’d never get anything else accomplished.”
Marek had gestured to Lynne as he spoke, as Eric had yet to return. Lynne nodded, then gazed to the kitchen doorway. The house was still, perhaps Eric had gone into the nursery to check on Jane. Lynne didn’t worry that he had altered, then fled. She would have heard him, and for some reason Lynne didn’t think Marek needed to witness the transformation. He had no doubt to what was coming. It was simply a matter of time.
Then Lynne heard Eric’s footsteps and she smiled as he entered the kitchen. He looked exhausted, but not pained. Marek’s impromptu visit might be the last time these men saw each other. As the pastor gave his goodbye, Eric offered to walk him out. Marek waved him off, then kissed Lynne’s cheek. He only shook Eric’s hand, then grabbed a tin waiting on the edge of the counter. Half of a peach pie was covered by wax paper, as Marek had discovered a local outlet for fresh peaches. Lynne had frozen many, for Marek had bought an entire bushel. Sam and Renee had taken their share, but the bulk was meant for pies, now and all through autumn.
Lynne wasn’t sure if by the time Eric returned any peaches would be left. Funny were the markers, she thought to herself, returning to the sink for the last forks and spoons in the tub. As she washed those utensils, Lynne considered various manners of counting the days. The coming baby would be the biggest indicator, but she didn’t want to think of all that Eric would miss. Then he stepped to her side, squeezing her shoulders. “I’m going to bed,” he said. “I can barely keep my eyes open.”
She turned his way, fatigue evident by the bags under his eyes, lines around his mouth, and those etched in his brow. “I won’t be long. I love you.”
He smiled, then kissed her forehead. “I’ll lock up. I love you too.”
Lynne closed her eyes as he walked away, hearing him rattle the kitchen doorknob, then leave the room. Once he was gone, she took a deep breath, then opened her eyes, staring into gray dishwater. She cleaned out the tubs, propping them upside down in the sink. Then she headed to the doorway and turned off the light. Another day’s work was done.
When she reached the bedroom, she found Eric wasn’t in bed. He wasn’t in their bathroom either. Lynne stepped out on the landing, but the hallway was dark, Jane’s door shut. Then Lynne peered over the banister; was one of the French doors ajar? She went to investigate, and found that yes, it was. As she looked through the panes, she saw her husband sitting at the patio table.
Lynne stepped outside, making Eric turn her direction. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, standing from his chair. He met her, then wrapped her close. “I tried laying down, but my mind’s a blur. I should’ve come into the kitchen, but I….” He paused, then kissed her cheek. “I found myself staring at the door, that one pane’s still noticeable. Not sure how, it’s so dark out tonight. Lots of stars to see.”
Lynne wanted to say that maybe Eric’s vision was already changing. But she nodded, gripping him. Was he truly going away, maybe all of this with Seth was a hoax. They hadn’t even met that man and she was pregnant and…. “Yeah,” she warbled, unable to keep calm. “Lots of stars out tonight.”
All evening, with Marek present, Lynne had felt in control. Now she began to cry, burying her face into Eric’s warm shoulder. He patted her back, placing soothing words in her ears, but they sounded hollow. She wasn’t sure if it was because of how he said them, or how she heard his missives. He would come home, he promised. He loved her and Jane and…. As he set one hand on her belly, Lynne started to bawl. Why, after so many years, was Eric being forcibly taken from their family?
Never before had Lynne needed to consider more than herself during his sojourns. She had weathered those absences perfectly fine, but now there were children in addition to Renee and Sam and Marek. And while all those people would fill Lynne’s mind and heart, her soul yearned for one man. Lynne wept hard for considering that; where was Jesus when she needed him?
“You won’t be alone,” Eric said in a whisper, his tone shaky. “Oh honey, I love you so much. I’m sorry baby, oh Lynne, don’t cry.”
“Why?” she mumbled, feeling guilty for her reservations. Then she pulled away, staring at her husband who, for as close as he stood, was hard to see in the dark. She caressed his face, finding she wasn’t the only one so distressed. Tears had rolled down Eric’s cheeks and she traced that dampness with her fingers. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make this harder on you.”
“I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t have to….” He cleared his throat, then sighed. “I started to feel it tonight. We don’t have much time left.”
Fear rippled through Lynne, but she fought to not break into tears again. She also cleared her throat. “Where?”
“All over. That’s why I didn’t come down with Marek. I felt terrible, like I was gonna change while he was still here. He knew something was up, we’d been talking about the exhibit, and suddenly I stopped in mid-sentence. He didn’t ask what was wrong, God, he’s so perceptive.” Eric sighed. “He just got up, saying he was gonna check on you. I know you won’t be alone this time and maybe that’s supposed to help, but honestly all I can think about is….”
He pressed his palm against Lynne’s flat stomach. “I’ve been praying about this baby, asking God why can’t Seth pull himself together, why can’t Laurie find the right doctors? Why me, which is something I asked rhetorically before I met you. Then when I did meet you, it was like, is this possible, should I subject her to all this, this insanity?” Eric huffed, then sighed. “I know why you’re pregnant again, why we had Jane, but I can’t seem to find the necessary compassion to justify what’s being asked of not just me, but you. And what about Jane?” Eric pressed his face alongside his wife’s. “Will she remember me even?”
Lynne nodded. “She will, of course she will.”
“Maybe,” he said, pulling away, but not moving his hand from Lynne’s belly. “I can’t make the same pledge with this baby as I did with Jane, and that rips me apart. I knew I’d be here for you then, but I can’t say that now. And I know I’m supposed to trust in God, how many times did I throw that in Sam’s face last summer? I told him that not even Christ was spared, and here I am, bellyaching about being away from you and our daughter, oh jeez.” Eric kicked up some gravel, then stepped back from Lynne. “This’s nuts, you realize that? How am I supposed to help Seth at all, what can I say or do or….”
Lynne didn’t look at her husband, but up to the heavens, which were dotted with a multitude of stars. She closed her eyes, but those bright speckles lingered under her lids like she had stared directly into the sun. Yet these twinkles were gentler, there was no harshness. She inhaled that notion as a hint of peace entered her heart. Breathing deeply, she brought more of that calm into her body, for she needed plenty. Yet this balm didn’t need to be shared with the coming baby; it was exclusively for Lynne’s soul.
She smiled, opened her eyes, then walked toward her husband. She reached for his hand, placing it between her breasts. “I know so little,” she began, that calm permeating her tone. “I look up and all those stars make me feel pretty small. I’ve been trying to be rational about this, trying to be calm, trying to pray, but now, tonight, oh Eric, I love you and no, I don’t want you leaving. And you’re right about what you told Sam last year. But it’s one thing to have all the answers when the threat isn’t directed your way. Now it’s all around us. And I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been giving this up enough either.” She sighed, then kissed her husband with passion. As she pulled away, she placed her hand along his face. “If I tell you now that we have to trust, you won’t think I’m being facetious, will you?”
“Oh my God no. I need all the reminders I can get.”
His tone was light, which made Lynne giggle. “I feel like even more than when you came home right before Christmas I’m being asked to give you up again. That’s what it is, but I’ve been ignoring just how much I’m being asked to trust. Before….” Lynne paused, then swallowed hard. “There I go again, before this and before that, but now before means something else. And maybe that’s the biggest unknown. What comes next neither of us can fathom. And I don’t just mean you going away. You never had to do more for your father than listen to him, and yeah, that’s all you’re gonna do with Seth, but it wasn’t about saving your father’s life.” Lynne inhaled, accepting the weight of that statement. Then she exhaled. “Not that whether Seth lives or dies is up to you, but that’s the reason you’re going. Or it’s one of the reasons. There’re more I know, but what they are is as mysterious as all those stars. Hopefully not as numerous.” Lynne kissed her husband again, but this time it was a gentle peck on his cheek. Then she took his hand from her chest, setting it again on their baby. “How many miracles Eric, how many? Maybe every breath we take is one, certainly this child is. You’ve given me another child honey. And while I want you here, I have you here.” She pressed his hand against her skin. “I know that’s small comfort to you now and I’m sorry but I, I….” She started to weep, so mixed were her emotions. Peace flowed through Lynne, yet she felt unable to share it with her husband.
Not even through lovemaking could Lynne proffer what now flooded her heart, and she wept for that most of all. Eric wrapped himself around her, but his arms were cool. She gripped him, wishing he could sense her ease, which she allowed might wane in the coming days. But at that moment Lynne could bear the misgivings that had plagued her since Seth tried to kill himself. If that man succeeded, a great loss would occur, one that Lynne felt had to be avoided at all costs. If Eric missed their baby’s birth, as long as Seth was on the road to recovery, Lynne wouldn’t argue. But how Eric felt was out of her hands.
Yet standing beside him, under the starry sky, she wondered if maybe peace was being shared. His breathing was even, his hands no longer chilled. Then he kissed her and as she responded, perhaps he was finding relief. They necked for several minutes, Lynne the one to break away. She wanted him, but not there on the patio. “Shall we go inside?” she asked softly.
He was quiet and Lynne wondered if he’d heard her. As he gripped her hand, motioning toward the garden, she knew his answer. They walked to the studio, but Lynne didn’t worry that Jane would wake. Under the stars the couple made love on a sofa that had served them well previously. They remained there for another hour as in the darkness Eric prayed aloud, beseeching his savior for the calm Lynne possessed. Her prayers were spoken inwardly, asking on Eric’s behalf for that same peace.
July fourth was on Thursday, what Sam and Renee noted to each other, what Renee carefully pointed out to Lynne. Lynne didn’t mention it to Eric, who had avoided the studio since their nocturnal frolic. Yet on Tuesday, the third of July, while still suffering impending sensations of departure, Eric asked his wife if they should have a cook-out, inviting the Aherns and Marek. Lynne was taken aback by Eric’s suggestion for two reasons; one that he assumed he might still be there on the fourth, and that it was the two-year anniversary since Sam had witnessed Eric transform. Yet Eric’s mood had improved since they had made love on the studio sofa, bolstering Lynne’s peace of mind. She agreed to Eric’s suggestion, calling Renee, then Marek. Renee quickly gave her and Sam’s assent, offering to bring whatever Lynne needed. Marek also accepted the invitation, but more warily. Lynne wondered if the pastor’s hesitation was due to not wishing to witness Eric changing form or if Marek felt his presence might impede upon that alteration. She kept Marek’s qualms to herself, but would make two pies regardless. Sam and Renee hadn’t visited in ages and would be happy to relieve Lynne of leftover dessert.
On Wednesday morning, Stanford called, informing the Snyders that Seth was being transferred to the Kerr Mental Hospital, probably that afternoon. The move had originally been slated for next week, but an opening had arisen, and Laurie wanted Seth relocated as soon as possible. The upcoming holiday mattered little, Stanford noted, his tone flat. Once Jane was asleep, Eric and Lynne discussed this news. Stanford had hinted that he was considering flying to Miami, if only for a brief visit with Laurie. Eric suspected that Stanford would ultimately back out, but if that man did end up in Florida while Eric was there, Stanford probably wouldn’t notice an errant hawk loitering nearby.
But would Laurie, Lynne asked. Her tone wasn’t teasing and Eric shrugged. Then he sighed. “I’ll probably run into him, I mean, I assume he’ll be there as often as Seth’s allowed visitors. I should call the hospital, find out what their policies are. Not that they’ll allow birds into the facility, but maybe there’s a garden, maybe he’ll be able to….” Eric stood from the sofa, where the couple had been sitting. He walked to the far wall, staring at the open space, where the orchard scene had resided. He traced the outlines of that missing canvas, keeping his back to Lynne. “Maybe Sam can look into it; Stanford made it sound like it’s the best hospital in that area. He also sounded….” Now Eric faced his wife. “Lonely. Funny, you’ll have everyone here and Laurie has Seth, but Stan and I are on our own.”
Lynne nodded, a hint of a smile on her face. “But you’ll never be able to tell him.” She stood, joining her husband. “Maybe he’ll go to Miami. Goodness knows Laurie could use the support.” Lynne caressed her husband’s face. “Not that Laurie’s alone down there, but it’s not his closest family and….” She sighed again. “I hope Stanford goes. Maybe you’ll have to lie low for a few days, I can’t imagine he’d stay longer than a few days.”
“No, too much in the art world he’d miss.” Eric smiled, then kissed his wife. “It’s neither here nor there. If nothing else, he’s thinking about it. Maybe that’s enough for them.”
“Maybe,” Lynne said, snuggling against Eric. “But right now, I want you.”
Eric stroked her head, kissing her cheek. “I need you too. You think if we go upstairs, Jane will notice?”
“Better if she wakes for that than if we’re in the studio. We’d never hear her.”
Lynne’s tone was light, although Eric had been correct; this time he and Stanford were the odd men out. As Eric made more passionate overtures, Lynne gestured for them to move to the sofa. She could lay a blanket over the cushions, then throw that comforter in the laundry. As Eric stepped in that direction, Lynne followed, not thinking of anything other than making love to her husband. Jane slept through that activity, but was awake as parents caught their breaths. Eric dressed, then fetched the toddler, who didn’t seem to notice her mother’s ruddy coloring or her father’s languid steps. The baby only cared about being cuddled, which occurred on the sofa after Lynne hastily tossed the blanket onto the carpet.
For the remainder of the day Eric spent time with his wife and daughter. That evening he took a call from Laurie; Seth was resting comfortably, yet he seemed slightly anxious, which Laurie attributed to the new facility. Give him a few days, Laurie had said, then maybe some beneficial treatment could begin.
Those words fell into Eric’s ears like an edict, but he responded casually, telling Laurie that Seth remained in all of their prayers. Laurie gave his sincere thanks, which also touched Eric. The call ended with Laurie promising to keep the Snyders updated, but that he probably wouldn’t know more until next week. The holiday might intrude, but more was that Seth needed to get into a routine. The staff was excellent; Kerr had a fantastic reputation, but psychiatrists could only do so much. Yet Seth seemed willing to explore the possibility of healing. The way Laurie phrased it struck Eric deeply. It was like Seth was waiting for one more piece of the puzzle. If Eric played the role Seth was anticipating, maybe change was looming.
Change was imminent as twinges flared within Eric’s guts, turning into flashes of pain as Wednesday became Thursday. His arms ached, then the pain abated, but as the Aherns arrived, Eric knew only hours remained for him as a man. He told Sam that, and that he was sorry it was falling on this date. Sam shook his head, then gripped Eric’s hands. Sam said nothing, but his prayers were translated as if Eric felt those missives through Sam’s skin. Eric also prayed, thanking God for providing Lynne with such stalwart support. At least Eric wouldn’t have to worry about his family’s welfare.
After that the two couples chatted amiably, then conversation grew slightly awkward when Renee asked when Marek was supposed to arrive. Lynne said he had been told the same time as the Aherns, then Eric smiled, stepping from his chair on the patio. “I’ll give him a call, see if something came up.”
Jane made the only noise, calling after her father, but soon the toddler was amused by her aunt. Sam also distracted Jane, playing Peek-A-Boo, but Lynne kept her eyes on the French doors. When Eric finally emerged from the house, Lynne knew Marek wouldn’t be joining them that afternoon. Eric said as much when he reached the group. Then Eric sighed. “I guess it’s too close for him.”
“I wondered,” Sam nodded. Then he glanced at Jane, who laughed at nothing in particular. “Not much else to be said, I suppose.”
“No, not really.” Eric retook his seat, then stretched his arms overhead. He met Sam’s gaze, making that man shiver. Sam would never forget what had occurred on this day two years before. Would it again happen, and if so…. Then Sam glanced at his wife, but Renee wouldn’t meet his stare. Instead she smiled at Jane and Sam permitted that joy. They had been talking about adopting, but not from St. Joseph’s. Father Markham had mentioned another orphanage, but it was much further away. Still, at least they were speaking of making a family, and Sam would give his wife whatever time she needed. Maybe all of this with Seth had provided Renee with perspective; life was short and Eric was being wrenched away from his wife, daughter, and another baby on the way. Sam wasn’t certain if Lynne being pregnant played any part, but Renee seemed more than happy to dote on her godchild. To Sam, that was enough of a miracle. Then he glanced at Eric, who now stood behind his wife, rubbing Lynne’s shoulders. Eric’s grimace relayed but a fraction of the pain Sam knew was coming. That agony made Sam’s stomach ache, for as he would never forget what happened on this day in 1961, he would forever possess the memories of how Eric returned from that sojourn. Those screams were buried alongside Sam’s Korean experiences, but being less than two years old, occasionally they stirred nightmares. Fortunately those dreams were hedged in the reality of Eric’s recovery. And if God was willing, Eric would again return home, changing back into a man. Sam prayed for that miracle as he watched Eric crack his knuckles, the transformation only minutes away.
Renee saw the same, although she couldn’t look Eric in the eye. She stood, speaking to Jane in a soothing voice, then Renee headed for the house. No one had needed to prompt her and it wasn’t as if she’d discussed this possibility with Lynne. Renee simply followed the leading of her heart, removing her godchild from a scene that Renee then prayed Jane would never witness. Renee stepped into the living room, closing the French doors behind her. She headed to the stairs, still talking to Jane, who clapped her hands, then tugged gently on Renee’s hair. Into the nursery they went, but Renee didn’t close that door. She set Jane on the floor, then shut the window, but the bottom of the curtain was caught, flapping in the slight breeze.
A godmother stared at that fluttering piece of fabric as Jane laughed like she saw the same. Then Renee turned around, but Jane was fixated on brightly colored blocks. Renee returned to the window, which faced the backyard. Renee didn’t peer down, instead looking at the sky, which seemed a particularly captivating shade of blue. She was glad Marek hadn’t joined them, no one needed to see Eric change, it was…. It was something Renee couldn’t accurately describe; good and bad, necessary but painful, momentary but lasting. Could what had happened to Marek’s family be described similarly, or what about Seth’s illness? Nothing connected to those situations was at all good or essential, making Renee shudder. Then she looked at Jane, who stacked blocks, then knocked them down. Renee went to her knees, then sat beside the child who to Renee looked much like Lynne. Was it Jane’s dark hair, perhaps? Jane was a carbon copy of her mother, except for her vivid blue eyes.
Those eyes now beseeched Renee to make her own stack of blocks and Renee complied. Then with a naughty chuckle, Jane knocked those toys to the floor. Renee burst into laughter. “You little bug-a-boo!” That had become Renee’s pet name for Jane since Renee had allowed this child back into her heart. Then quick tears sprang from Renee’s eyes. She collected Jane into her arms, shielding her from a sound that Renee couldn’t ignore. The screech was loud and Renee turned toward the window; had she fully closed it? Maybe that crack, accommodating the curtain, now permitted a father one last goodbye to his daughter. A hawk swooped past, crying in earnest. Renee wanted to protect her goddaughter, but the bird made a return trip. With Jane still in her grasp, Renee got up from the floor. Together they stood at the window as Eric made one more pass. Jane seemed not to notice, but Renee grabbed the toddler’s hand, waving it. “Say so-long to Daddy,” Renee mumbled, tears pouring down her face.
By the time Eric had altered, Marek had finished weeding the flowerbed. He smirked at himself, spying the pile of weeds; he hadn’t been able to join the Snyders, yet he couldn’t remain inside St. Matthew’s. And more troubling was that instead of keeping his eyes on the skies, he’d spent all that time hunched over, doing the bidding of an old woman who would always hate him simply for his nationality. Why did his Polish heritage bother her, he wondered, then he got off the ground, brushing dirt from his trousers. He stretched out his back, then put his hands on his hips. The gardener might give him a funny look, but Marek hadn’t wanted another dressing down. Then he sighed, finally looking upwards. The sky was a gorgeous shade of blue, which made him smile. It reminded him of home, how magical were those days of his childhood.
The blue was rich, maybe it was related to what this country was celebrating on that day. Mrs. Kenny had asked him his holiday plans, then she had tutted herself, but Marek had chuckled, wishing her a good time at the picnic she was attending. That had been on Monday, before Eric had invited him for the cook-out. Marek never did tell Carla Kenny about that summons, which would make it easier when he saw her on Monday, nothing more to note than church business. She had offered to come in tomorrow, but Marek had told her to enjoy the long weekend. He wasn’t expecting a big crowd on Sunday, but would Lynne and Jane come for worship?
Marek didn’t include the other member of the Snyder family. Eric was probably on his way east already, Marek could feel that man’s absence in the same manner he had realized his family was dead when he approached their village, smoke still visible in the dark sky. The haze had probably lasted for days, although Marek hadn’t stayed long enough to see it dissipate; perhaps it had been blown away by a stiff wind. Eric was headed across the country and Marek prayed for that man’s safe return. Then the pastor closed his eyes. He couldn’t ask why, although he wished for a reason, if not for himself then for Lynne and Jane, Sam and Renee too. Yet Eric’s immediate kin resonated in Marek’s heart. If they attended church on Sunday, Marek would insist that they stay for lunch. He hadn’t been able to be there for them today, but as time passed, he would offer as much support as was feasible.
The breeze felt good on his face, which was marked with sweat. He gazed at his handiwork; the flowers were again prominent, so Mrs. Harmon would have to look elsewhere for something over which to badger him. Marek collected the weeds, a few falling back to the sidewalk. He bent over to gather them, gripping the pile in clenched hands. He walked to the back of the church where a mound of clippings waited. His additions were minor, then he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He scanned the skies, seeing only that mesmerizing shade of blue. He smiled, unable to help himself. It was a beautiful day, perhaps befitting such ethereal occurrences.
He returned to the front steps, looking down both sides of the street. Mrs. Harmon was nowhere to be seen; she would probably wait until dusk, he mused. Marek shook his head, then headed up the stairs. The screech made him shake, then turn around. On the first step was a hawk, staring right at him.
Marek inhaled slowly, exhaling deliberately. His heart pounded, his vision was blurred. He blinked several times, but the hawk remained on that step. It was large and its eyes seemed strangely oval. Yet maybe Marek projected that, for he knew this creature wasn’t merely fowl. Marek wished to speak, but nothing came from his throat. He coughed, but the hawk didn’t react. It gazed at him, blinking occasionally. And with every blink, the bird’s eyes grew more round, Marek would swear that was the case. The creature pecked at the cement, then hopped onto the sidewalk. Marek couldn’t take his eyes off of it, of him. It was Eric, as again the hawk peered straight at the pastor. Eric was this bird of prey, no matter how much Marek wished otherwise.
“Godspeed my friend,” Marek said in a half whisper. Then he cleared his throat. “I assume you can understand me,” he smiled. “May you fly safely, accomplish the task in front of you, and return in God’s due time.”
The hawk nodded, then opened its wings wide. Then it launched itself into the air, swooping right over Marek’s head. The pastor looked up as the bird made one more pass. Then it flew off and Marek watched until he couldn’t see it anymore.
Marek went inside the church, then headed to his room. He took a bath, got dressed, then went into the kitchen. It was nearly five p.m., but he picked up the telephone anyways. He needed to speak to Lynne, but not for confirmation. This call was pastoral in nature, checking on a member of his flock.
Sam answered, making Marek smile. Then Lynne was put on the phone. “Hello Marek. How are you?”
“I was calling to ask that of you.” He paused, then continued. “I had a visitor about an hour ago. I assume Eric got off well?”
Lynne took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “He did. I wondered if he would head your way first.”
A brief chill ran down Marek’s back. Their conversation seemed innocuous, yet…. “I wished him a safe journey. I….” Now Marek shivered. “I’d been out gardening. I suppose I was hoping to see him.”
“Are you finished with your work?” Lynne asked.
Now warmth surged through Marek. “Indeed I am. The flowerbeds looked improved for my efforts.”
“Well, we have plenty leftover. I made two pies, but Sam says they can’t take more than a half home. We’d love to see you.”
Marek nodded, closing his eyes. He could still see Eric on the stoop, pecking at the ground. “I’d love to join you.” Marek opened his eyes, then walked to where he could view the painting of himself and Jane. “I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”
“Wonderful,” Lynne said. “Looking forward to your company.”
“See you soon.” Marek waited for Lynne’s goodbye, then he hung up the receiver. He took one more glance at the painting, then exited the kitchen. He collected his keys, locked the church, then got into his car. As he drove out of town, he only paid attention to the road. Eric was in God’s care, but then they all were. Yet, Marek offered another prayer for that man, who for the foreseeable future was a most extraordinary creation. Godspeed indeed, Marek repeated inwardly. And Christ’s blessings to those awaiting Eric’s arrival, then his timely return, the pastor added.
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, at over two-thirds completed, The Hawk currently stands at over 500,000 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 Seven will most likely be released in early spring, 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.