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Other People’s Birthdays

ISSUE:  Fall 2015

Illustration by Gosia Herba Lawrence got on the plane in Charlottesville and flew to Dulles, a quick flight once airborne, but the reading light above the seat had only a slight inward glow, so no paperwork could be done. At Dulles, the electronic board of arrivals and departures gave her the bad news: The flight to Boston, instead of leaving at 8:50, was scheduled for 11:45, delayed awaiting crew. That almost certainly meant it wouldn’t take off at all. The crew was probably trapped somewhere because of the side effects of the hurricane and general bad weather on the East Coast—but when were things much different? Whatever it took to make it an arduous trip, and of course you couldn’t say the obvious, you had to smile and say there were worse problems blah blah blah. The mediocre glass of wine for thirteen dollars at the airport bar was one of them. The candy bar she ate on top of that, an hour later, made her sick. Lawry, she had always been called, though her father had insisted the second and last child be named for him. People pronounced it Laurie, though she thought of herself as Lawrence. Her older sister was called Bett, for Bettina. Their late grandmother’s name.

Finally, finally they boarded, the man with the tall child—in a T-shirt, running shoes, and diapers—bemused by the boy’s stomped excitement. “Yeah, we’re going on a plane, that’s what we’re doing, buddy.” Other children were crying or struggling, trying to break free of the hands of parents gripping their wrists. Lawrence knew about that, though she wasn’t a mother. She could easily predict the tantrums about to erupt, as if she were mercury rising in a thermometer.

Which dated her. They were digital now.

She had her purse in one hand, a Tumi bag with ingenious inside compartments that meant she could never find anything she reached in for. Why were so many of them narrow? She didn’t smoke cigars. She’d managed to fit her Mac into the bag, though that meant she had to leave it unzipped. In her other hand she carried a canvas L.L. Bean bag embossed with an old ex-boyfriend’s name, lincoln. She and Lincoln had once been on the verge of moving in together, though she’d refused to look at apartments with him, and when he found one he thought was perfect, she’d gotten cold feet and told him it would be better if he completed his first year of medical school before they lived together. Then she’d seen him talking to a pretty girl at a party—talking in a way that made her nervous. “Exactly what gesture did I make? What gesture?” he’d asked afterward as they got in the car. “Do you want to make me inhibited about using my hands in a particular way when I talk? Are you serious?” Maybe she was insecure, but she also trusted her instincts. Would she be in for a lifetime of watching him gesture in that way with pretty women, with nothing she could ever articulate any better than she’d been able to in the parked car? Now, waiting in the airport she saw that there was a missed call from John, her newer ex-boyfriend, which must have come in while she was drinking her sour Italian white wine. He was a lawyer who worked twelve hours a day, minimum, except for Saturdays shopping for groceries, then on to the racquetball court, followed by a massage and a quiet evening reading a mystery on his Kindle. It had been one, but only one, of the reasons they’d parted company a year and a half ago.

Which also dated her. They had not passively “parted company.” He had screamed at her, standing by the Tidal Basin, “You think you have the hardest life, the worst luck, the only problems worth considering. I’m a so-called workaholic because I’m dedicated to something and I don’t expect the world to wipe away my tears. It would be one thing if we were in our twenties, but we’re in our forties. Are you ever going to be capable of understanding or even, God forbid, empathy? Or are you just going to protect every minute of your precious time and bounce back and forth from DC to Newton to remain the perfect daughter to people who will never thank you for it, who’ll always think you’re the unimportant one?” The ugliness of that night (she had answered back) had been one of the deciding factors: She’d moved from Washington to Charlottesville, where she’d made a couple of friends, and where people treated her more kindly, and to her surprise she never visited John in Washington anymore, except for one time she’d driven there to be his date at a fundraiser at the Corcoran. They’d sat at a big round table with his friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, and she felt sure all of them knew what a handful she was (according to John). An hour or so into the evening, she’d taken one very pink rose from the centerpiece as she excused herself to go to the restroom, a rose with no thorns. She’d carried it there, leaving it by the sink while she peed, then carried it Olympic-Victory-style to the parking garage, only to forget it overnight in her car. Back in Virginia, the head hung limply, like a dead bird’s, when she noticed the rose the next day on the passenger seat. Starting about the time she’d walked off without saying goodbye, John had called her cell phone, hours later her landline, even her monstrous parents, because for some paranoid reason he’d assumed they’d contacted her and she’d rushed “home” to Newton. All her anger at herself about letting the beautiful flower die had been misplaced in the letter she wrote him, snail mail, saying their relationship was over. He’d continued to call her home phone and her cell, but he’d left her parents out of it, at least. Never once had she called him back, but a few times she’d responded to one of his e-mails. Was that so hard? No, it wasn’t, she’d admitted, but she’d stuck to answering his questions and not even offering some pleasantry. He certainly did not deserve an apology, because to be honest, at the Tidal Basin he had shoved her, hard, as he raged. 

She called her father on his cell phone when she disembarked, telling him she was at Terminal C. He was waiting in a nearby area reserved for just that; with luck, they’d be at the house in less than half an hour. She wondered if her mother might be along for the ride, or even Bett. The next day would be Bett’s forty-third birthday, and they would be driving to her favorite place in the world, Barnacle Billy’s, in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, where their father had appeared at the playhouse in several roles, years before he became a father. It was where he’d met Joanna, forty-five years ago. She’d been taking a year off from nursing school, living with her aunt in Wells, waitressing during the summer and ushering two days a week at the Ogunquit Playhouse in exchange for sitting in the back row and seeing performances. In her father’s opinion, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest American actor. He’d taken the Acela to New York to see him in Death of a Salesman and he still talked about little else. Had the play’s run been longer, he would have gone a second time. Come to think of it, he liked to repeat experiences. She, herself, was the repeat of his experience of fatherhood: Bett; Lawrence. Joanna was his second wife (he’d married his first wife at twenty, been divorced at twenty-five). He always bought Volvos.

The new dark-blue Volvo was now coasting to the curb, her father flashing his lights even though she’d raised a hand to let him know she saw him. From inside the car, he popped the trunk, though she only tapped it closed and opened the door on the passenger side, dragging her purse and her L.L. Bean bag in after her, dropping them in the ample room to each side of her feet, leaning toward her father for a wordless peck on the cheek.

“Did you buy the perfect present? Is there a bicycle folded up in that big bag, or a dehydrated horse, maybe?”

“You’ll see tomorrow. But I’ll give you a hint: You won’t have to teach her how to ride a bike or provide any hay.”

“Your boyfriend called tonight,” he said. 

She was startled. After months of silence, he’d called her father? “Why?” she asked, surprised at the childlike petulance in her voice.

“How would I know? I kept waiting to find out. Just a coincidence, it seems. At least he didn’t mention knowing you’d be coming in, and I didn’t say anything about that, either. He wouldn’t know when your sister’s birthday is and put two and two together, would he?”

“What did he talk to you about?” she asked. Of course he wouldn’t know the date of her sister’s birthday.

“The election. He’d heard what some of Clinton’s talking points were going to be and was passing them on. He said it had been the hottest, most humid summer he could remember. We talked about Nora Ephron’s death. He met her once in New York, you must know about that? No? At a movie premiere, he said. She gave him the name of a good moving company in Washington, agreed with him he should live in New York if he was going to be putting up with big-city hassle in the first place. Who wouldn’t prefer New York, except maybe for the impossibility of parking. Well, you can do it. You just have to be a millionaire.”

“He claims he’s moving?” Lawrence asked.

“No, I didn’t get that,” her father said. “It was something he’d once been thinking about.” He nodded to himself.

“I can’t tell you who to talk to,” she said, “but I don’t talk to him anymore.”

“You’re hard-hearted, we all know that.”

“Maybe I’ll call your ex-wife and shoot the shit about the heat in the Midwest versus the heat in the South.” 

“She’s not in the Midwest anymore. She kept up with one of Uncle Earle’s kids, of all things. Nathan. He told me when we saw him last Christmas that she’d moved. She’s in Santa Monica.”

“Really?” she asked, but her surprise was that he’d seen Nathan. She’d had a huge crush on her cousin when she was a teenager. “What is Nathan doing?”

“Bankrupt,” he said. “Lives in Florida, which is one of those states where they can’t take your house. He’s trying to open an organic nursery there. I sent him a little something, I admit it. I hope he can climb out of the hole.”

“Did you know I had a crush on him when I was sixteen or seventeen?”

“You were fifteen when you met Nathan, and yes I did. He’s a nice boy, always was. I look back and I think he had a breakdown when he was in college, and nobody in the family reacted to it as seriously as they should have. He was self-medicating all that time he was at Berkeley, is the way I see it now. Maybe it was just the times, the fact that he was overshadowed by his brilliant sister. I don’t know. But this latest reversal isn’t going to do him in, I could tell that. He and Bella are still married. They have a rescued greyhound. He sounded pretty good, considering.”

“I suppose you and Joanna will be visiting, come winter?”

“You’ve always been inhabited by the green-eyed monster, Lawrence. What if we did visit? Do you think that would mean we care about Nathan more than we care about our own daughter?” A slight pause. “Daughters.”

“Bankrupt!” she said. “Wow. Nathan with that 160 IQ and that long, curly hair.”

“Yeah, and some dog racing around looking like a harp with a big nose. He got my e-mail and sent me a picture of the dog by attachment.”

There was little traffic, at least for Boston. When was he going to thank her for coming? Her father had such good manners. He seemed a little preoccupied by something. She asked outright if that might be so.

“Lawrence,” he said, a tinge of regret in his voice. He removed one hand from the wheel and took her hand. He held it silently until someone cut them off on the right, and both hands automatically flew back to three o’clock and nine o’clock. Oh, that: life, itself.

Back at the house, Joanna was waiting in the rocker on the porch. The entire, vast porch had been an anniversary present to themselves, covering the front of the house and wrapping around one side. A bit of stage decoration: an enormous fern in a Victorian urn. Two historically correct lights glowed at either side of the front door. Though her father had been the actor, it was her mother who had a flair for the dramatic. “Lawrence, my most wonderful daughter!” she said, enfolding Lawrence in her arms. “Thank you for coming. It’s a pick-me-up just to see you.”

“Love you,” Lawrence whispered as she and her mother embraced. A big moth fluttered against the light, making a sound so loud, it sounded amplified.

“I’ll take these things inside. Your sister went to bed early, with a headache. But she’s so looking forward to tomorrow. Her best friend returned, and a drive to Barnacle Billy’s.”

She watched her mother’s smile instantly subside. She might be able to set stages, but she didn’t have her husband’s ability to act.

“It’s just a regular headache? Not a migraine?”

“She hasn’t had a migraine for ages. Knock on wood,” her mother said, knocking on the arm of the rocker. She’d sat down. Lawrence handed her canvas bag to her father, indicating by a slight gesture that she’d keep her purse. He took the bag inside. There were three other chairs on the porch, but only one rocker. Lawrence collapsed into a comfortably cushioned wicker chair. “Everything okay?” she asked.

“We’re luckier than most,” her mother said, avoiding the question, trying to determine a mood of grateful acceptance. She was really at her best at Thanksgiving, but in recent years, because of the difficulty of air travel, Lawrence hadn’t come to Thanksgiving. 

“You don’t look like a person who’s been traveling for hours,” her mother said. “Are those new boots? I’m afraid you’ll be hot in them here, but of course you can wear any of my shoes you want.” Lawrence smiled, acknowledging all of it: They should be grateful for what they had; the Cole Haan boots were new, and she loved them so much she’d worn them even though she knew they’d be too warm; she and her mother had worn the same size shoe for years.

“Vanity,” Lawrence said, crossing her legs, showing the boot from its buckled side.

“Have whatever you want,” her mother said. “You work hard for your money. You’re a wonderful person.”

“But you missed your guess about my marrying John, didn’t you?”

“I never thought you had to marry at all, unless you were entirely sure you’d found the right one. I just lucked into your father. I do sometimes regret not going back to school, though. Even though that was eons ago.”

“And he regrets not being Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

“But your father is so inherently handsome,” Joanna said. She looked up just in time to smile at him as he came out, carrying a tray with three iced teas, big slices of lemon stuck to the rims. None of them took sugar. The sterling-silver iced-tea spoons had belonged to their grandmother, and were monogrammed W. As a child, Bett had been spanked for digging in the dirt with one. It was the only time Lawrence could ever remember her mother spanking either of them. But through the years, the spanking had been discussed, and discussed, and discussed. She wished her father had just brought the iced teas without the spoons.

“I’m here, too!” Bett hollered, descending the stairs. She was carrying a big flashlight, like the ones cops use when they stop your car and come to your window. She shone it in their eyes for painful seconds, first Lawrence’s, then Joanna’s. Their father had escaped the blinding light when she sideswiped him and walked onto the porch in her pink nightgown and navy-blue UGGs that she wore everywhere, in every season. Her braid was lopsided and a lot of hair escaped it. She insisted on doing her own hair.

“So how about a hug for your sis,” Lawrence said, arm over her eyes, rising.

“No more hugs because touching is socially inappropriate,” Bett said. “It’s a hot topic.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lawrence said, going toward her. But she could tell from her sister’s expression that a hug was unwelcome. She held out her hand. Bett shook it and seemed to throw it down, as if it were a pancake she was flipping from the spatula. Lawrence did have rather small, light hands. She knew to grip firmly, and did, but still you could often see the other person surprised at the inherent lightness of her hands.

“Did you know that tomorrow is my birthday?” Bett asked. 

“Yes, I did, and your present is in the bag Larry just put inside,” Lawrence said. “Two hints: not a bicycle, and not a horse.”

“Two hints,” Bett echoed. “Not a clown and not a corpse.”

It was always possible she was joking. Lawrence considered this interpretation more often than she thought their parents did. “Corpse” more or less rhymed with “horse.” Maybe just a bit of wordplay. Bett hated clowns; she wasn’t afraid of them, she hated them, as well as anything that reminded her of them, such as marionettes or children in face paint, or certain mannequins. She’d once had a meltdown on Newbury Street. Belatedly, Lawrence realized that a bicycle, or a unicycle, really, might, indeed, conjure up some clown at the circus. She was pretty good at getting inside her sister’s head. But why would Bett happily watch motorcyclists? Why did children on bicycles not bother her, though she sometimes shuddered if an adult passed by on a bicycle?

“I’m afraid we’re out of decaf tea,” Larry said, lowering the tray onto a table, “but would you like something else to drink? Orange juice or seltzer?”

“Tomorrow’s my birthday, so maybe champagne!” Bett said.

Of course alcohol could not be mixed with Bett’s medicine. She was also to avoid caffeine, which meant no chocolate, and chocolate was one of her favorite things. A life without chocolate was impossible, so sometimes Bett enjoyed a bit. What could you do?

“Orange juice, seltzer?” her father repeated.

“Harpoon, weather,” Bett said. She took the slice of lemon from the rim of her mother’s glass and raised her eyebrows, sucked it, cried “Ew!,” and threw it over the railing.

“At least it wasn’t a container of Chinese food,” Joanna said dully.

Larry said nothing. The family counselor, who had lived with the three of them for a weekend several years ago, had made the point to Larry that whatever his wife said was her business, and he helped nothing by correcting his wife in front of their daughter. Otherwise, Larry would have spoken to Joanna as if she’d been another of their children and instructed her not to be sarcastic, because it “wasn’t attractive.” That was what both daughters had been taught as they were growing up. Not to fidget; not to put a used Kleenex anywhere but in their pocket; not to be ironic or mocking or sarcastic. But still, in her own lame way, Bett had gone on and on and on. For a while, before college, and before she got out into the world more, Lawrence had been so well-mannered, she’d seemed like someone out of an Edith Wharton novel. That ended courtesy of weed and cocaine, and resulted in the eventual loosening of a sharp tongue that could make people gasp. Lincoln had thought one day she’d burst through the shell of her body and attack with the frenzy of a comic-book viper.

“I could use help with openin’ my presents tonight, ma’am,” Bett said. Her sister was addicted to old TV westerns (Gunsmoke being her favorite), and to Deadwood. Whenever she wanted to be emphatic, she turned her hand sideways and made a gun with her thumb and first finger. She did not, however, point her gun in her parents’ direction any longer. A lot of invisible bullets were fired into the carpet or the porch or even the mattress.

Larry sang, “I’m an old cowhand, from the Rio Grande …” between sips of iced tea. He’d given his lemon to his wife. Lawrence found herself staring at the squeezed lemon floating in her mother’s iced tea, exactly lit by the outdoor light until her mother lifted the glass to drink from it. Her parents were stuck with Bett for the rest of their lives. Still, they had friends, they’d recently found another sitter whom Bett seemed to like (a gay man who was back living with his parents until he began his new job in Buffalo), so they’d resumed going out one night a week. On the other nights, her father attended a book discussion group on Mondays, and her mother volunteered to help the activity director of a local nursing home. The previous Christmas, Larry had been recruited to play an elf who went mad in Santa’s workshop in a play written by the activity director. It had been a huge success. As one of the activities, those who could still write had written him thank-you notes, and they’d wanted to do it. A few notes were attached by funny magnets to the refrigerator, as if it were still the sort of home where the children came back from school with stars on their papers. Make that with a star on her paper. Bett had gone to several schools before the one in Connecticut was found. For those two years, Larry and Joanna had lived alone. They’d joined a gym, gone to the theater in London, Joanna had lost the ten or fifteen pounds she’d gained since her wedding and had bought some beautiful new clothes on Newbury Street (pre meltdown, on one of Bett’s weekends home; after that, Joanna did not enjoy shopping on that street). Then the answering machine caught up with them: The school was always calling. Were things appreciably worse, or for some reason did the convenience of the machine, and the quick response they’d get, result in their being called more often? Who knew? But that had been the signal, like the whistle blown at the end of a race, that it was over. School ended, Bett graduated (because everyone did), Bett returned to her old bedroom in the house in Newton.

“Why don’t you have cowboy boots, if you’re going to wear boots?” Bett asked Lawrence. “They’re much cooler.”

“I like soft leather,” Lawrence said. “These are the sort of boots you can wear in the evening, too, with a black dress.” 

“Well, I wouldn’t have boots like that, I’d have cowboy boots, and then you could kick your toe at people, and cowboy boots are worn more and more now. Who would want to be in a stupid evening dress, anyhow?”

Lawrence shrugged. The last time she’d worn an evening dress had been at the Corcoran—a Priscilla of Boston knee-length dress that had probably once been some bridal attendant’s, in the most beautiful shade of sea-glass green. She had gotten it for thirty-five dollars on eBay.

“Mom has corns!” Bett said, pointing to their mother’s black clogs.

“Mom has a sore toe from running to catch the train in tennis shoes without socks,” Joanna said. She slipped her foot out of her shoe to prove it. There was a small Band-Aid wrapped around her second toe. She’d gotten a pedicure; her toenails sparkled and had been expertly painted pale pink.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to check to see if I got a message I’m waiting for,” Larry said. He left his empty glass on the tray. He’d carried it out; one of them could carry it in. From Joanna’s perspective, he was always making a mess (though even she would not have criticized the tray of glasses of iced tea), and she was always having to clean up after him. From his perspective, and he often cited his source (Malcolm Gladwell), people formed first impressions within the first few seconds of meeting you. Why, then, do anything but be yourself? And he was lazy, he did throw his clothes on the floor. Joanna had tried to reason with him: Would he come out onto the stage and act well for the first fifteen seconds, then just wander around, doing any old thing? What did it mean to “be yourself”? But they’d been married for more than forty years, and they adored each other. There was that. He kissed the top of his wife’s head as he walked, empty-handed, toward the house.

“Bring out my present!” Bett called. 

“That’s for tomorrow,” he said. 

“No, bring it NOW!” she said, pointing her finger gun at his back. He turned. The gun was still pointed. He shaped his own hand into a gun and said, with no inflection, “Pow.” 

And then Bett went crazy. She knocked over the little table when she jumped forward, waving her arms as she stomped toward him, Joanna cringing and raising her hand to her mouth before she recovered herself and also got to her feet. “Bett! Bett!” she screamed, though Larry said nothing, only used his arms to shield his face from the blows. He’d been spat on! By his daughter! A first (he would later tell Lawrence). “Stop it immediately!” their mother said, raising her own arm as she spoke in case Bett whirled in her direction. Which she did. She didn’t whirl, but she did turn, slowly, and look at her mother with incomprehension. “You don’t want it to be my birthday,” she finally said. “There are no plans except the trip tomorrow.” 

“Bett,” Larry said, in his superreasonable voice, “what do you think happens on people’s birthdays? Your sister has come with presents. Your mother and I have a gift for you. We’re taking you to Maine, to your favorite restaurant, for a lobster roll. For ten lobster rolls, if that’s what you want. What do you think happens on other people’s birthdays?”

“They get cakes made with killer sugar,” she said. “They get ten cakes if they want it, and it’s full of sugar and it doesn’t make them crazy, they eat their cake and have it, too.”

This produced an undisguised look of surprise between Joanna and Lawrence, who now stood at her mother’s side in a show of support. Not in time to have been helpful, but when she’d recovered from the sheer shock of Bett’s attack, she’d gone to her mother’s side as fast as she could.

“We try to do what’s best for you. You’ve had the conversation about alcohol and sugar and caffeine with the doctor many times yourself, Bett. I repeat: We try to do what’s best for you, even if we are not always right.”

In the way he said Bett’s name, Lawrence understood that he despised his older daughter. Don’t take it back and say she can have a piece of cake, please don’t, she thought silently. Her wish was granted. He said nothing more, pulled his rumpled but still tucked-in shirt out of his pants, rather than trying to figure out how to neatly retuck it, turned his back, and went into the house. Next, Lawrence thought: Please don’t leave me alone on the porch with the two of them. But it was apparent that Bett was through, and their mother unhurt. 

“May I suggest that we forget that happened and sit a bit longer out here and enjoy the lovely weather, and hear what’s new with your sister, Bett? Unless there is anything more you feel you must say?” Joanna asked.

“I feel I must say that she only came to see you, not to see me,” Bett said. “But now we can hear from the important daughter.”

“Bett, I’m serious. I want you to avoid that tone of voice,” Joanna said.

“And I want to go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning,” Lawrence said. She was thinking that she’d go upstairs, find her father at his desk, at his computer, wordlessly squeeze his hand for a few seconds, perhaps bend to touch her forehead to his, all the silent signals they had. That night, she might even crawl into her mother’s bed and do spoons. In recent years her mother had taken over the spare bedroom, and now the bed again had its canopy, and the sheets were amazingly white and soft. Larry had been diagnosed with sleep apnea and had to sleep with a breathing mask at night.

Upstairs, Larry sat with his head on his arms. He heard her footsteps, the upstairs floorboards creaking, but didn’t look up. He was mumbling when she came into the room—then he did look up, red-eyed—and he was saying “in Greek tragedy, all the battles are summarized, we don’t have to see them onstage: Here’s the way it happened, here’s what the violence consisted of, who fought hardest, who screamed loudest, who died. We exist in our suburban idyll, where everything can also be summarized: We’ve had pretty good fortune, pretty good health; we’ve been married for longer than we’ve known any of our mutual friends; we have a daughter we call ‘troubled.’ No attention must be paid. In fact, please don’t. Those are the facts, sir. Ma’am. Now the action resumes.”

“You left out your other daughter,” she said, hands planted on his shoulders. She felt suddenly exhausted: the outburst; the travel; maybe going back farther than that, her lousy romances; her bad decisions.

“My other daughter is named for me. I’m really a Larry, though, not a Lawrence. I didn’t inhabit that name even before she was born. I was always a pretty good actor, never a great one. No loss to the stage that that career didn’t work out.”

“Philip Seymour Hoffman,” she said tiredly. “Spare me.”

The last word wasn’t out of her mouth when they heard the crash. Larry ran for the stairs and, coward that she was, Lawrence went to the window. At first it seemed like strobe lights were flashing on the porch, but no, it was her mother and her sister, engaged in a struggle. The bag with the prettily wrapped present inside was swinging back and forth, and finally became airborne, Bett getting it for long enough to throw it over her shoulder as she continued to wrestle with Joanna, who’d sunk to her knees. Lawrence raced down the steps, thinking, I only wasted ten seconds looking, I’m getting there now as fast as I can, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m running downstairs. Where all she could do, more or less, was throw herself onto the heap, her father pinning Bett’s hands behind her back in spite of her screaming protests; Joanna, bleeding from a cut on her cheekbone, running inside the house to call the ambulance, or the doctor, or whomever she’d be calling—her mother, the tail of her torn blouse pressed to her face, scrambling for the phone, as Lawrence tugged silently on her father’s shirt, as if to get his attention, as if she were a desperate child, as desperate as Bett, who was trying to shake off her father’s hands. It was no time until they heard the ambulance siren. So little time that Lawrence thought it must be responding to another call, but it was coming to this house, an ambulance full of what already looked like a lot of people, their eyes searching, but their faces rearranged into neutral expressions, everything indicating that this was just another thing to deal with competently, they’d seen it all before, they recognized everything, including the sad trickle of blood, they’d get on those restraints as quickly and painlessly as possible.

An hour later, a bit more, Lawrence and Joanna sat in the same chairs on the porch, having a glass of white wine. “I knew it the minute she was put in my arms in the delivery room. She looked me right in the eye, and I knew I was in for it. You’re our bonus, you’re our present. Do you hate us for bringing you into it? How could you not? But I didn’t understand that at the time. I think I thought Bett would be fine, that she was just prone to tantrums, a strong-willed child intent on getting her way. Hey, what’s in the box, by the way? Anything breakable?” It was clear that if it was breakable, her mother didn’t care.

“Cowboy boots,” she said. “Lucchese. eBay, in the box, never worn. Size 10, brown snakeskin. I didn’t think about that before: snakeskin. But since they don’t make us see shrinks anymore, I guess that doesn’t need to be noted. It was un-con-scious.” She pronounced all three syllables of the last word, mocking only herself.

“Can you bear to pick up the box from the lawn?” her mother asked.

“Yes. You go take a shower, and when you get into bed, I’ll come rub your shoulders.”

“Thank you. That’s a good idea.” 

“What was the play Larry was in—the one where you first met in the lobby, after the performance?”

“What? Oh. It was Our Town. He was the Stage Manager. Do you know the play? A bunch of dead people sitting around at the end, your father gesturing and saying how they all died. It does choke you up, however corny it is. It would have been a low joke to point to one of them and say that so-and-so died of boredom.”

“Did he gesture with the gun pointed?”

“I’m sure he didn’t,” Joanna said. “I’m sure it would have been subtle, the way your father is. Most of the time.”

“I’ll get the box, but only after you go inside,” she said.

“Well, far be it from me to have a disagreement with one of my daughters,” Joanna said, mocking only herself. She rose and went inside without saying anything else. When Lawrence finally went down the steps and looked back at the house, the light was on in the bathroom. Not like her mother to have forgotten to drop the blind, but she had. And she was standing there looking out the window. She waved, naked. She was a sixty-five-year-old woman, looking beyond Lawrence to the moon.

She went over to the big box and picked it up, no differently than if it had been a dropped flower, or someone’s litter. Then she did a double take and looked at her hand. She hadn’t realized she had the strength, or such finger spread, to hold such a heavy cardboard box one-handed. She wrapped her other arm around it and brought it into her body: her present; her shield. In the mode of her father, she gestured to the squirrel running across the telephone wires, and said, “And that fellow, in his prime, electrocuted.” The squirrel ran quickly to the end of the wire, jumped into a high bush, and was gone. “Upstairs? That naked lady? She filled the tub full of water and drowned, and on the same night, it turned out her husband was deeply depressed. All kidding aside, he had a real gun, and he used it on himself. The survivor, the so-called normal daughter? She took out her cell phone before she went inside, full of contempt for the idea of birthdays, angry instead of proud of herself that she’d returned ‘home’ for her sister’s birthday, and she did something uncharacteristic, but you don’t see her sitting here, because it didn’t kill her. She called the man she missed most, Lincoln, as nice a man as his namesake, who’d freed the slaves, and in that way she freed herself, and they lived happily ever after.”

She stopped to look at some feathery green leaves barely illuminated by moonlight and the porch light. She would not have known what they were, except that her mother had impaled the seed envelope beside them—it would be her mother who’d put the chopstick in the ground, piercing the seed packet like a big needle taking a stitch, wouldn’t it? Of all unlikely things, next to the front steps her mother had planted “Red Cored Chantenay Carrots,” though there was no other garden, and to her knowledge her mother never grew anything, though she did pick from the spreading patch of mint along the fence every now and then and stick a sprig between ice cubes in the iced tea, or she sometimes pulled apart a bit to flavor a fruit salad. It was September, and her mother was growing a patch of carrots. She ruffled their tops, found them sturdier than they looked but fragile at their feathery tips, and faintly ticklish. They were pretty enough to put in a bouquet. 

She thought she would remember that. 


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