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Early Deaths

ISSUE:  Autumn 1985

The baby did not know. Felicia, waking early to despair that made the very light seem granite, heard faintly the morning song the baby made from the little room at the end of the hall, voicing snatches of welcome to his hands and heels, as he waited solitary for Mrs. Schmidt to come to him.

“I’m sorry you had to get up so early again,” Felicia had said more than once, and Mrs. Schmidt always beamed at the creature on her shoulder.

“Why, he was just the pleasantest little thing. Just smiled at me the whole time. I’ve always loved being around childring.”

It was easy for Mrs. Schmidt to forgive the baby’s ignorance and happiness.

Felicia made out in the morning dark the cartons stacked against the walls, distinguished the white blur that was Drucilla photographed in her veil, happy and unhesitant, another Drucilla from the stony face she last saw in these walls. In the pane over the outside door to this makeshift bedroom there was a showing of light with some false warmth in it.”...the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds. . ..” But there had not been any instant of final, natural poetry for Drucilla and Tim. Terror, it must have been, horror and agony. . . .dental charts. . . . She turned her face into the pillow. It was the end of everything.

Today the apartment seemed vestigial, with the dreariness of ruin. The tall windows, the bays, and the folding doors had first intrigued her as Dru’s taste, Dru featuring herself in the first floor of a Victorian mansion.

Now and then the baby gave her a long solemn look as if he knew, but when she tried to smile reassuringly he over-responded in gummy grins and ecstatic flailings. His tears had none of the finality of hers; they were topical.

After the embrace, Patty had said emotionally, “But you’ll have the baby!”

Felicia, handkerchief still to her eyes, answered with set jaw, “I’m not thrilled. Patty, I hate caring for babies.”

“Oh, Felicia!” Patty’s stiff, spotted hand stopped with the lighter going.

“It’s not unnatural. How can it be natural for civilized people to enjoy poking food into mouths and wiping bottoms?”

“Oh, Felicia! Civilized people nurture their young. They’re helpless. Somebody did it for you.”

“I wish my mother hadn’t had to. You wipe bottoms and genitals till you see bottoms and genitals in your sleep, and you’re steeped in the smell of urine and. . .and spit-up till you feel you’re a social outcast, and you never have enough sleep and the baby weighs more every day. It’s enough to make you regressive.”

“You’re bitter now. It’s going to be funny watching you get wrapped up in that little fellow. And honey it doesn’t go on forever.”

“It seems like forever. Then you have to make ‘em behave, you smack them and go off and cry and wonder what the Lord meant making you have to civilize your own offspring.”

“Oh stop it! You’re so much younger than the rest of us. You know what I mean. I wish I had a grandchild. I’ll help you, Felicia. Everybody wants to help.”

Yes, Felicia thought, about one time. Then all of you will say, Felicia’s so wrapped up in that baby, Felicia would have to find a sitter. . . . I’ll be sitting home with a sleeping baby— or, worse, a nonsleeping one. Never a whole day for myself. Nothing for it but to turn on TV—if I’ve the energy even for that.

“Don’t some of your young folks want to take him, if you feel that way?” “They’re Tim’s brothers, you know.” “What are their wives like? Bruce’s?”

“Dorothy’s always had a job. Selling real estate, till she had this mastectomy. With Bruce, she had to work.” “The other one?”

“I don’t know about Adele. They have a good setup. She loves tennis and has lots of friends. They have a lot of friends.” “He should have had a sister.”

“Drucilla’s is out—you’re right. My Margaret’s not the mother type—not as much as I am.” “Your art students love you.”

Patty couldn’t understand the burden students were. No, she did love some of them. But that cut-and-dried business was killing the freshness within her. Fate had made a mistake. This grandchild should have been Patty’s. Running off to Europe, tagging after other people. It’s Patty, not I, who needs a raison d’être.

Yet Lambert would have liked a son. If he could know of this namesake grandson— (“Felicia, help me! I’m suffocating!” Those black nights, when she tore, trembling and frantic, to the hospital. Alerting Don and Patty next door for the children. She forgave Lambert in those months for his feverish nature and his fatigue that had made so many demands. It was the day he said, while she was holding his diminished hand, “Lissy, I’ve taken you away from so many things. I know I have. But go back.”)

She’d left little Lambert with Mrs. Schmidt—cleaning woman turned total treasure—and made one flying trip back to Washington after the service to devise a sort of nursery from her new studio, and talk with the employment agency. Then she had driven back to Richmond to close the apartment. She tried to put her mind to it. Thursday! She must have everything near, in the front seat beside the baby. Patty had offered to come, but Patty was getting ready for her trip.

That had not kept Patty from saying, with more frankness than Felicia was game for, “How like you! Anybody else in the world would accept some help with a trip like that.”

If the children hadn’t offered to help her pack the apartment, it must mean they were very tied up or were afraid of becoming liable further.

She sat at the narrow antique table in the anteroom. In the drawer on top of Drucilla’s blue paper was the mail Patty had forwarded. They hadn’t made many friends here. . . . They had had another occupation—their marriage. She put the condolences aside and took out three letters.

She had hoped for something positive from Tim’s brothers, yes, both of them. If she had pounced on them before the funerals—but who was capable of pouncing at such a time? And from Margaret! She turned to the last page.

“You know, Mother, Walter and I would love to take little Lambert ourselves,”—she at least calls him by name—because it’s her father’s name, of course—”but you know Muffle goes to kindergarten this fall, and I’ve just got the news today. I’ve been accepted in with Smith and MacIlbaine. It’s the finest firm here you know. It would mean scuttling everything I’ve been dreaming of. I think I’d always resent him if I made myself do it, especially since we need the money, you know.”

You know, you know. Felicia thought uneasily of her checkbook, its recent decimations for Drucilla, and all to come. She remembered Margaret on the phone, “Dru shouldn’t have a baby, Mother! Why doesn’t she have an abortion?. . . . Just a minute, Muffle wants to say hello.”. . . She turned back to the letter.

“As to the clock, many thanks for thinking of me. I used to love listening for it in the night at Nana’s. I thought it was like somebody coming up the stairs and into the room especially to comfort me. I’m glad Dru had it, of course. She loved it, too. Can you have it crated and sent? Walter says send us the bill, of course.”

She had hardly expected any help from Bruce—Bad-luck Brucie, Tim tagged him—but he was so obliging.”Bruce got all the charm,” Tim said.”He needed it.”

“Dear Felicia-” She did find it charming to be called that by Bruce. He did have a special feeling for her.”We’ll do everything we can to help with the baby, I know you know that. We want him to know us and know our boys as if we lived in the same town. We’re looking forward to having him here for vacations with us when he’s bigger. Dorothy is stronger, but still having the therapy. The kids are wonderful, as always. Boozie’s mastered the washer. But I couldn’t make it without Doug and Adele. As it is, there are days.But, as I say, we stand ready to do what we can. Just ask us, darling. By the way, Dorothy says send her the cards and notes from people here and she’ll write those.”

And you’ll need Douglas and Adele more, now you can’t call on Tim and Dru for those little loans. . . . No, no, Brucie was not to be blamed. They’d had terrible luck—terrible business luck, and Dorothy so young for that operation.

But she had dreamed of the baby’s going into the pack with Douglas and Adele’s four. They’d just bought a bigger house. Adele was so capable and cheerful. Yet she suspected it was Adele’s decision, though the letter was from Douglas.

“Dear Mrs. Singleton. . . . I have been thinking of what’s going to be done with the baby.” What a deplorable expression! “It seems hard for you to take on another child now—” ( age—but he doesn’t know the half.) “but it’s perhaps simpler for you than for anybody else.” (A schoolteacher. A clubwoman.) “I wish we could adopt it, but our lives are so complicated. I don’t feel I could ask of Adele to take on the responsibility of my brother’s child, especially as she is having to do so much for her Mom and Dad just now. He’s coming along pretty well, but they’re afraid of another stroke.”

She went over to the daybed she’d slept on less than a year ago, that distressing visit when little Lambert was born. Her ballpoint, flying over Drucilla’s blue paper, steadied by Mobjack Bay Houses:

“Patty, the trip is really out for me. I know you can find somebody to take my place. Now that spring’s upon us it will look pretty attractive to some people who couldn’t be bothered last fall. You know how I wish I could, but my clear call is to little Lambert. And there are financial considerations. Tim had everything before him. Entre nous, there are obligations to be met. As for the baby, there is nobody else. When you hear who, if anybody, the agency has lined up, call me. Thanks so much for seeing them, if you do think that best. The movers come Wednesday, they promise, and storage space is set up with Mendenhall’s. We’ll talk again over the weekend.” She underlined the is before nobody else.

Then she joined Mrs. Schmidt under the plum tree blooming like a Van Gogh with its catbird appassionato in the fenced back yard, where the baby in his stroller clenched nothing, as if everything, in his upraised fists. His eyes caught her passing, for a searching look, then a reckless, fleeting smile, and he kicked briskly. Mrs. Schmidt was knitting.

“Now it’ll be fine for him to have you, from the very first,” she said in her innocent, strident way.”You know they say they’re never too little to know. It makes them numb, kind of. I’ve seen little babies without anybody, you know, die, when I was working in the hospital.”

God have mercy on Margaret, Felicia thought suddenly, remembering how numb she’d been at the church. Dorothy and Adele, though not kin, had cried bitterly and she’d thought Bruce’s arm had been around her as much for his own sake as hers, since Dorothy was obviously weak and might have needed him. Even Douglas wiped his eyes miserably. Why was Margaret numb?

“And you’ll have him!” Mrs. Schmidt took Lambert out of the stroller and jumped him on her big knees.”Not that anything can take the place of your own child, even a grandbaby. But he’ll be a consolation.”

But there was no consolation for not being in Paris, for never, now, probably, seeing those Cassatts face to face. She could only dwell on the ones in Washington—the complicated, polished mother-flesh and baby-flesh double-portraited by mirrors, and other pictures, so significantly hung it was exciting.

She closed her eyes to the sun and saw the two landscapes dominated by cloud-blobbed blue skies, on opposite walls: a Pissaro and a Monet—the Monet painted first—but had it influenced the older painter? The juxtaposition told so much. Somewhere else angled together in a corner were the Corot landscape with small figure and road, and opposite, the big Monet with two life-size figures, man half-facing, woman in a big green dress with her back almost turned. Both paintings were of the same poetic intensity and communicated loss. How did they do it?. . .”A little too private, perhaps,” that newspaper reviewer had said of her exhibit.

She opened her eyes. Why should she care that she was not part of that group of nonentities—American tourists in Paris? What difference would it make when the sands ran out? Certainly her paintings would not shift the sands of time. Why did she care to do them?

Mrs. Schmidt was handing Lambert to her. He looked at her hesitatingly. He liked to go to Mrs. Schmidt. I must learn to hold him, she scolded herself. He’s growing so fast. My arms must get strong. I’m only 52.Fifty-eight when he starts to school. How old do they go to camp? She hated herself. Boys went away earlier. But didn’t they resist it more? Find it more traumatic?

“I used to spend the night when they’d be out late.” She read guilt in Mrs. Schmidt’s eyes. Mrs. Schmidt knew more than she did about the death the baby sprang from. Mrs. Schmidt knew the voices and the silences late into the night. She knew the doors—bedroom, living room, refrigerator— and the ice-maker. She knew where the booze was kept, where the telephone jacks were, the car keys and the outside entrances. Fortunately, Mrs. Schmidt’s own family, as well as the money, kept her from going back to Washington with them.

The baby cried. She watched, holding him before her anxiously a minute. He remembered lying in the wreckage. He remembered lying among the dead. How could she cope with his problems, this offspring of a dead hearth? Could she see him through that Second Summer? Could she remember— boys aren’t as strong as girls; they don’t have the same will to live?. . .

She remembered her grandmother, bent and bitter, saying to her when she as a little thing cried for something in the top of the cupboard sobbing, “If I were big I’d get it!”—”When you’re old you’re like that again. You look up at cupboards and say, ‘I can’t get up there. I’ll fall. I can’t wash that china any more in this lifetime. There are things you have to give up.”

And nobody will be there when I’m old. Dru won’t. Margaret won’t. You won’t, she told him. It’s not done. And don’t die young and leave a child of your own.

“He wants his lunch,” Mrs. Schmidt said. “I’ll take him in.”

She went in too and tackled another carton of dishes, eating peanut butter crackers in pauses. . . .

Did I bring it on myself? Dru didn’t want to go. “I can’t take your money, Mother.”

But I was distaught with remembering after I got home. The state of the apartment, the cracked dishes, the wedding Spode, the mildewed towels. The washer out of order, and no shades yet in the kitchen. . . .

She wrapped the still new napkins around the demitasses. . . .

She’d thought Tim’d be glad for a boy. After dinner she said, “I’ll wash the dishes. You go to the hospital and see your wife.”

“You go. I don’t have anything to say to her.”

She smiled uneasily, but he was dead serious.

“You go,” he repeated. “You’ll find something to say to each other.”

Finally, “Go anyway,” she said, and cleaned house furiously till she heard his car back.

She must throw away all Drucilla’s letters. Leave nothing to let Lambert condemn his mother.”I miss my job and I miss Washington. I’m bored. Our life here is law, law, law (jaw, jaw).”

Before she left, Felicia had lined up Mrs. Schmidt, and underwritten that, budgeting rather carefully, since she liked to keep the price of a new car in short-term savings, just in case, and they were going up so frighteningly. And she’d already resigned, to paint seriously.

Would it be possible after all to sneak some time somehow? “He won’t take all your time,” Patty in her ignorance assured her.

“Don’t be senile,” Felicia exploded. “You know a baby is a 24-hour proposition. Even those sitters take your time.”. . . It isn’t as though I still had a husband to help. Patty—the whole club—will gradually leave me out.”You know she’s tied up with that grandchild,” they’ll excuse themselves. . . .

“I’m going now. His bottles are in the refrigerator. I may be a few minutes after nine. Jimmy’s got a meeting at school.”

Felicia checked the bare shelves and empty drawers. The kitchen was almost all packed. Drucilla’s only kitchen.. . .”I don’t want to renegotiate my marriage, I want to renegotiate my life.”

The little back room Drucilla had made baby’s room held the crib and playpen, but there was still a furnished-apartment look to it. It had an oak chest in the corner, damask draperies, and a dingy black armchair in the middle of the room. . .”I have to tell you. Tim and I had a fight when I found out I was pregnant. I agreed to have the baby, but I’m going to have a job after. Mrs. Stilwell with the Historical Society knows of two or three things coming up I would like..

She watched Lambert reaching for the ball tied to the crib. He steadied himself, stiffening the little package of flesh his body was, and made a plunge for it with almost concerted hands and feet. Missed. Fixed all his attention on it again, quietly, as if stealth might do it. He had determination. Like Drucilla. He might be the one to do things.

She remembered Margaret so big, playing in her playpen, 25 years ago. . .(“Felicia! Help me! I’m suffocating!”). Remembered Dr. Sandford telling her to go home and get some sleep.”Save your strength.”

Yes, it took a while to recover from. Luckily Dru was a sure, independent tot. And even in those days of being needed by the babies, or readying herself to get back to teaching, she felt a freedom, a slack of time. One night she got out of bed, found the paper and charcoal (yes, she knew where they were) and sketched, fast, a long time. A large fire in the fireplace, a mass at the side that was Lambert, his back to her, bent toward it, and the margins of his face so bright as to be clearly reflected by the fire instead of reflecting the fire—the difference between human brightness and mere physical brightness. A poor substitute for the painting it should be translated to, the colors it should have, should exist in—but never had, she reminded herself. Perhaps it was too ambitious too soon, or maybe too much time elapsed between the conception and the working it out. But it gave her a feeling of exultation that night, as if it had been born of her, independent of her as a child. There would be others some day!

But there was that Saturday she was sitting near Margaret in her playpen, doing some mending. In a gush of clarity she had seen it was over for her possibilities. Fate would gift her with arthritis, or blindness, or something, by the time she had the time. And taking care of those lives, those unpredictable births, meant being on the watch every day, practicing recording them, as a sky-watcher records phenomena, being ready to pounce instantly on something important.

Yes, the end of everything. She had been squeezed out of life, out of eternity. How could she have thought, so recently as last month, she’d been given a second chance?. . . Drucilla, crashing terrified. . . .”Stop teaching, Mother,” she’d said on the phone.”Do your painting. You’ve earned your freedom.”

There were, of course, keys to the built-in liquor cabinet, because it was that sort of dark-ages apartment; but they lay in the dust behind the Cointreau.

Baby food and bottles, that seemed to be all in the refrigerator. She poured some rum into a glass of Lambert’s orange juice and sat with it in the black satin armchair. The crib would go on the inside wall of her studio, across from the windows, where all the new canvases had stood about. They were ghosts already. “You’re so much younger than the rest of us.” How absurd.

She was old, and everything seemed new suddenly, crying out to be made up on canvas. Every color, every natural composition that fell into place before her eyes every day— the windows of the museum reflected in the plate glass of the supermarket—Patty’s shoulder and hat at the wheel and reflected in the windshield— the three vertical figures at the bus stop against the three horizontal slats of the bench—one tumbling after another, into another, as if some Instigator demanded voice through them—they were all wrested from her. Her Instigator, it seemed, was not the final Instigator. Thou shalt not have.

What if I were dead? Simply weren’t here? What if I abdicated? Threw a fit? Threw a nervous breakdown? Would they let him go to an orphanage? Would Margaret give up her dream job?—or Douglas ask the impossible of Adele, ask her to do less for her parents? Would Bruce borrow from Douglas again—from somebody—and tuck him into the days of Dorothy’s therapy and his own stopgap jobs? “The kids” would as always be wonderful. She was being selfish, but they—they were all willing to dump him.

The baby pulled up on the side of the crib. What a cartilaginous little thing he was—like the Cassatt bundles. Even his brain in its infinite malleability she was answerable to. He let go and sat down with a plunk, then held up his arms to her, bouncing a little in his seat. Cuddly size. Sullenly she dangled a set of plastic keys before him. He whimpered, reaching up at her petulantly.

She dropped the keys to the floor, took a sip, deliberately, then stared him darkly in the eye. “I can’t!” she hissed. “Don’t you see I’m dead?”


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