Della Stamp had to admit, at least to herself, that she was tired, bone tired. Even now, sitting at the table in the little restaurant she and Walter had agreed would do, it took her a moment to concentrate on anything besides herself. She eased her shoes off under her chair where she could touch them with her toes and reassure herself from time to time that they were still there, then leaned forward with her elbows on the table top. But she resisted sighing. She and Walter both tried to be good sports, and when one failed temporarily—as Walter had done by becoming very silent over the past hour—the other felt the responsibility for keeping things going and for being prepared for whatever might happen.
Walter said that he would go to the counter and get them some coffee. “You want anything else?” he asked. He had started feeling in his pockets for change. His face had gotten pale during the afternoon and there were moist circles under his eyes which made Della realize that he was as tired as she, so she decided then and there she would do something nice for him as soon as she got her strength back. He held out his hand with the palm up to show her that he only had nickels and pennies in change, and she looked in her pocketbook and found four quarters which she handed to him.
“Let’s just have coffee,” she said. “The doughnuts they keep in those plastic cake covers are stale on the truck.”
Walter stepped over to the counter and spoke to the woman behind it. Della leaned back and stretched her legs, rubbing the heel of one foot against the top of the other. Despite her fatigue, she found, as she looked around her, several things to approve of: the cafe, which had seemed dingy from the outside—just as gray and dirty as the city street—was clean inside, almost cheerful. There were six tables, each covered with a red and white checked oilcloth, and on each table, instead of the dusty plastic flowers you might expect, there was a vase with paper flowers so real you had to touch them to convince yourself otherwise. On her table, the flowers were roses—she counted seven of them total, four red and three pink. She started to remove one of the red ones, thinking that the rest might look better evened up, but when she tried to pull it out, the entire arrangement began to come with it, so she pushed it further down into the vase. Then she gave the whole thing a little pat.
Besides the waitress behind the counter, the only other person in the cafe was a woman at the back table: she was dressed in a maroon suit and white blouse, and Della judged her to be in her middle 60’s, probably about the same age as Walter and herself. The woman had the remains of her lunch in front of her, but she was clearly waiting on someone, for she had settled into her chair and was working on a piece of needlepoint. Della decided that the woman was someone she and Walter would like to get to know.
Walter came back to the table and put two mugs on it.
“It’s already got NutraSweet in it,” he told her. Despite her warning, he had bought himself a doughnut. He sat down and began eating, dunking it into the coffee, then leaning forward so that the excess liquid dripped back into his cup. Della resisted the temptation to remind him about his manners: it wouldn’t be right to make him feel self-conscious here in a public place.
As he ate, he seemed to feel better, and Della noted that his color was coming back. While he had never said so out loud, Della was sure that he had not wanted to come to the convention in the first place, even though it was an opportunity for him to learn some of the latest ways to improve the business and to give the two of them a little vacation besides. Della enjoyed trips and was always open to new experiences. Sometimes it just took a little effort to pull Walter along with her.
“I really enjoyed this morning,” she said. “I thought those exhibits were really interesting, especially all the garden tools, and those little children dressed like clowns giving out free samples. I think that showed a lot of imagination.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Walter said. “It all made me think the business has left me behind. I think I might as well go back home right now and sell out.”
“It’s just new times,” she said. All he needed was a little encouragement. “We’ve got to change with the times,”
“I don’t,” he said, and his tone made her fear he was working up towards an argument. “I never started the store so I could have cardboard cutouts of TV stars selling window caulking for me.”
Della sipped her coffee. She should have known better, she thought. She should have seen how Walter wasn’t so much tired physically as he was worn down by all the newness they had seen that day: walls of towel racks, row upon row of bright shiny tools arranged according to quality and price, large plastic bins—in loud surprising colors—which could be filled with nails or seeds. In the center of the huge display area had been a complete two-story house, one room deep, with the back off like a gigantic doll’s house: it had been set up on a knoll of green indoor/outdoor carpet, with potted flowers and even a plastic vegetable garden arranged at the fringes. By looking into the open back, you could see everything a hardware store could provide a modern family. Though it was cramped, Della had liked the display because of the neatness with which all the items in it—the kitchen tiles, the black microwave oven, the Rubbermaid accessories—showed themselves. But Walter had barely looked at it and had hurried Della along through the other, less interesting exhibits. He had seemed happy only when they ran across people he knew and could talk to about grades and brands of baling wire and seat wrenches, old friends who would agree with him that all the new merchandise, or the marketing of it, was not anything he or they cared about.
Della could have told Walter a lot, of course. She could have told him how the store was not his, but theirs, and how she had worked with him side-by-side, year-in year-out, until Rose was born, and even part-time after that. “A helpmeet,” May Reedy had told her she was. “A perfect helpmeet.” Della could have told Walter that, though she had learned not to be too truthful, even with Walter, especially when it came to passing along any opinion of May Reedy’s.
The door opened, and a young couple entered: they had on identical blue jeans and denim jackets, not only worn towards white but stained in ways they didn’t have to be even if those wearing them were poor. They bumped against each other as if they had just waked up from a deep sleep and hadn’t yet made the leap into awareness, and the young man stumbled and caught himself against the edge of the counter. Watching them, Della wasn’t sure they knew where they were, and she almost rose to guide them to a seat with her hand. But then they straightened up and walked to the table immediately behind her and Walter. When they were seated, the girl laid a grey bundle—as dirty as their clothes—on her lap and placed a large yellow bag on the table, and the two of them leaned back in their chairs.
“Shit!” the boy said. He said it matter-of-factly, as if he were passing judgment on things in general, and the girl didn’t reply. Della was glad that she hadn’t embarrassed herself and Walter by offering them assistance.
The woman at the back table looked up and, when she saw what had come in, gave Della a sad smile. Della shook her head from side to side and smiled back. “What can you do?” she felt the woman saying to her, and “Nothing in God’s world” she thought back.
“Service!” the boy yelled, then whooped as if he had said something hilarious. “Service! Service! Service!”
The waitress told him that she was the only one on the afternoon shift and that this was not a regular meal hour. She said that she had to stay where she was, and they would have to come to the counter if they wanted anything. The boy seemed to calm down then, almost as if he had decided to behave himself like a civilized person. He pushed his chair back and walked to the counter.
Because she could not hear what he said, Della assumed he was ordering something, but the waitress—a large weary looking woman who must have heard just about everything in her life—flushed and stepped back, bracing herself against the stainless steel door of the refrigerator. “Let me hear anything like that one more time,” she said, “and I call the police. Nobody has to hear stuff like that.”
“Wayne Lee!” the girl said. “Come back here. Don’t start anything.”
What happened then was so surprising that Della said, “Why, look there,” out loud and pointed to the girl so that Walter had to shift around in his seat and take her in. As she had called the boy’s name, she had picked up the bundle and pushed back the top of what Della only then recognized as a blanket. The couple—hardly more than children themselves—had a baby. When the girl brought the baby to her shoulder, its head moved in a circle and then its eyes seemed to focus on Walter and Della, a long expressionless stare. Ordinarily, Della would have played up to a baby, given it a long series of low cooing noises and an exaggerated smile, but the behavior of the couple prevented her from doing that.
“It’s a baby all right,” Walter said. He turned his face away from the mother and child as if there was nothing unusual about them. “I’m not going to argue with you about that.”
“Do you think we ought to do something?” Della whispered. “Do you think that baby’s all right?”
“Now, Della,” Walter said. “Don’t you start that. It’s none of our business.”
The waitress’ words had obviously put the boy in his place, for he said something else to her, and she took two cans of Coca-Cola from the refrigerator and handed them to him. He brought them back to the table and sat down, flipped the metal tab on each, and handed one to the girl. “Old bitch,” Della heard him say, but he said it so softly that the waitress could not have heard him.
“Why don’t you just shut up, Wayne Lee?” the girl said, and the boy said, “Why don’t you go to hell?”
The baby was making nearly inaudible noises, not obvious the way babies should do, but low and neither happy nor sad, almost nothing more than the sound of breathing. “Hush!” the mother said nevertheless. “Hush up!” She jiggled the baby against her shoulder so that its head rolled again, and it looked surprised and stared once more at Della as if she were supposed to do something. The mother leaned forward and took a bottle from the yellow bag—Della wondered how long it had been since the milk had been warmed—then laid the baby on the table and began feeding it. She used her free hand to drink her Coca-Cola, and Della felt she was indifferent to whether the baby was drinking milk or air. When the mother looked down, her neck—white and exposed—was thin and vulnerable looking, like a child’s.
“Well, it just worries me,” Della said, more to herself than to Walter.
The woman at the back table stood up and, holding her needlepoint in both hands like a gift, walked to the window at the front of the cafe. She stood for a minute looking up and down the street, then turned and started back before stopping near Della and Walter. She seemed uncertain enough so that Della was encouraged to smile at her, an invitation for her to say something if she wanted to.
“I just hate being kept waiting,” the lady said. Her voice was crisp and she pronounced her “t’s” distinctly. Della could tell by her voice that the lady was from somewhere else, somewhere north.
“It’s no fun, I know,” Della agreed. She slipped her feet back into her shoes. Walter had stood up, as he would have done had the lady been a customer walking into his store, and Della asked her if she would like to join them while she waited.
The lady said she had been sitting for long enough and preferred to stand, but she told Walter to sit down and not stay on his feet on her account.
“My friend ought to be along in a minute or so,” she said. “He had some errands to run while I had lunch.”
Because the couple and their baby were making her nervous, Della was glad that the lady seemed inclined to talk: having a nice conversation made everything seem normal and safe. Moreover, people—nice people—were important to her, and she took every opportunity which presented itself to learn about them and their lives. Whenever she and Walter went on vacation, she made as many acquaintances as possible, writing their names and addresses down on a pad of paper she kept in her pocketbook. She had a list of almost 50 people she had met like that over the years, and every Christmas she sent them a card with a Xeroxed one-page letter telling them all about herself and Walter and Rose and what they had done over the past 12 months. Connections like that were important: sharing events with others made your own life seem broader.
“Is your friend here for the convention?” Della asked. “The one at the Civic Center?”
The woman looked puzzled for a minute, then told Della that, no, her friend and she were traveling further south but that he had business in Roanoke and had left her here to have lunch while he saw some people. She said that they had driven all the way from Leonia, New Jersey, that morning and that she therefore welcomed the time to relax and get herself back together before they started off again but that now she felt she had been kept waiting long enough. She said that she and her friend—she called him Mr. Sutman—were on their way to Atlanta where she was going to visit her sister, but she wasn’t sure how far they would get that afternoon.
The woman’s explanation surprised Della. She wondered what kind of woman would be travelling with a man on a trip so long they would have to stop for the night on the way. It was a new world, she knew, and people were not so strict about behavior as they used to be. Della and May Reedy had watched an Oprah Winfrey show only a week ago on which three older couples had admitted openly that they were living together without marriage because the Social Security system would take away some of their benefits if they became man and wife. Oprah and her audience had all agreed with the couples, and so had May Reedy. May Reedy had said that she would do the same thing in a minute, and Della had said she agreed, even though secretly she had thought otherwise. She had realized that she was lucky to have Walter and shouldn’t judge others who, like May Reedy, had lost their spouses, but, still, it was different to meet in person someone over 50 who was actually travelling with a man who wasn’t her husband.
Finally, the lady said she would join them after all and Walter stood up again and pulled out a chair for her and she sat down. She put her needlepoint on the table in front of Walter and Della. Walter smiled when he saw it and looked down at his coffee mug.
The picture was different from anything Della had ever seen except in paintings: a woman, pink and naked, was lying on a sofa and behind her was a vase of flowers and a little naked boy with a bow and arrow. “Venus, the goddess of love, and Cupid,” the woman said. Della told the woman that it was beautiful, but she wondered why anyone would want to make such a thing with needle and thread; she wondered where in the world the woman planned to display it.
The woman said that this particular needlepoint wasn’t the sort of thing she ordinarily made but that it was for her sister, a high school Latin teacher in Atlanta, who had asked her to do something classical for her. She said that she usually worked on flowers and animals like dogs and cats because that was pretty much what her life had revolved around until recently: her garden and her two dogs and two cats. She said that one thing she had learned in just the last few months, however, was that the human body is a beautiful thing and certainly nothing to be ashamed of and that artists all through history had understood that fact.
“That depends on the body,” Walter said. He looked at the woman as if he were trying to figure her out, and he repeated: “That has to depend on the body in question.” Della gave him a nudge under the table.
The woman looked at Walter as if she didn’t realize he was kidding her, and she began explaining that it had taken her a long time to discover that life was a lot more exciting and interesting than she had been led to believe and that no matter how old you got, you had the right to search for your own happiness and that you couldn’t depend on others to plan your life out for you and tell you what your responsibilities are.
Della wondered what May Reedy would say about the woman’s ideas; she wondered how she could get the woman to say more specifically what it was that had made her learn something like that, particularly at her age. It was hard to concentrate, though, because the boy and girl next to them had begun arguing in earnest, and even though they were whispering, she could hear the boy say “You think I care?” and the girl say “People can hear you” and the boy say “You think I give a fuck?” But when Della looked at them over Walter’s shoulder, the boy stopped saying anything and turned his face away and stared towards the rear of the cafe.
Walter and the woman seemed to have heard nothing—to be unaware of the couple’s presence—and Della wondered if she had imagined the words, but when she looked again, the young couple were sitting there, stiff and angry, glaring away from one another. The girl was holding the baby against her chest now, but all Della could see was the rigid set of the girl’s back and, again, the thin child-like neck.
“Atlanta,” she heard Walter say to the woman. “You’re going to Atlanta? Our daughter Rose used to live in Dalton. She worked for the telephone company there before getting her job in Panama City, Florida. She works for the telephone company there, too. If there’s anyone in northern Florida who has problems with their telephone, all they do is call Rose, and she puts whatever’s wrong down on a computer and gets it fixed.”
As Walter talked, Della willed herself to blot out the image of the angry boy and girl and to try to think of how to insert herself into the conversation at her own table. She knew that Walter, as usual, was making Rose and her job sound better than they really were, but lying like that wasn’t really lying: it was merely gilding the lily. It wasn’t as if they were in a court of law and sworn to tell the exact truth. When anyone asked her and Walter about their daughter, they never mentioned her problems—her inability to settle down in one place, for instance, or her reluctance to come home even for holiday visits, certainly not her unhappy relationships with men. Della and Walter sometimes, like now, found themselves making Rose up like a character in a story, but they were always careful to start at least with what was really so. And what they ended up with often seemed more truthful because it was what ought to be.
Instead of asking more about Rose, though, the woman told them that she too had a daughter, her only child, but that her daughter had pretty much disappeared into her own life. “Her husband never has been very friendly to me,” the woman said. “They moved to Cleveland where he got a job with a company which makes pencils: they custom design them with different sayings on them and advertisements. He’s a certified draftsman and had a good job in New York but took this other thing that’s got nothing to do with his training, as far as I can tell. Shirley said it was an opportunity, but it was almost as if they just wanted to move away from me and his family. I told Shirley to live her life and I’d live mine.”
“Children have to lead their own lives,” Della said. “Rose keeps in touch as much as she can, but she has to lead her own life.”
“She has to lead her own life,” Walter agreed. Della realized he was talking as much to her as to the lady.
“I know what you mean,” the lady said.
The young couple, still not speaking to one another, lit cigarettes and started blowing smoke everywhere. Della fanned her face with her paper napkin and wondered how people could be so inconsiderate. She had read an article in Readers Digest which proved that smoke from someone else’s cigarette could give you cancer. The article told about how children of parents who smoked could get all sorts of diseases, not only cancer but bronchitis and heart conditions which would stay with them all their lives. When she risked a glance, she saw that the mother had put the baby back on the table and was rocking it with her hand but Della could tell she still wasn’t truly paying attention to what she was doing.
The woman asked Walter if Rose was married, and Walter said that, no, Rose was concentrating on her career.
“That’s too bad,” the lady said. “At least Shirley is settled so I don’t have to worry about her. She has two children of her own, a boy and a girl. At least I know that she has two healthy children. I hardly ever get to see them, but at least she has them.”
“You’re lucky there,” Walter said.
“Children are the hope of the world,” the woman said, and Walter nodded.
Della, though, wondered what that meant. She thought again about the three old couples-actually only a little older than she and Walter—on the Oprah Winfrey show. Someone had asked how their children had responded to their decision to live together, and all of them had agreed that their children hadn’t liked it but that that didn’t matter. “They’ll just have to accept it,” one woman said. “Like it or lump it,” her friend— her lover—had said. May Reedy had snorted in agreement, but Della hadn’t been convinced. She had wondered how Rose would react if Walter passed away and she, Della, started living with a man who wasn’t her husband. She had spent most of the last 35 years of her life worrying about Rose, but worrying about your children was what was expected of you. It was a new age when children had to worry about their parent’s behavior. She looked again at the couple blowing smoke directly into their baby’s face.
“We thought about going to Florida to visit Rose last summer but my work kept us from doing it,” Walter said.
“We may go on to Florida,” the woman said. “I think it would be fun to do that, and to see the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve never seen the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Have you seen the Atlantic?” Walter asked. When the woman nodded, he told her, “The Gulf of Mexico’s no different. It’s just the same water gone to the foot and come up the other side.”
“We’ve got to decide something now,” Della heard the girl say. “We’ve got to decide what we’re going to do!”
“Maybe this summer we will go to Panama City,” Walter said. “Rose is our only daughter, and we ought to go down there to see her. Now Della has this friend—May Reedy—” (He leaned forward as though confiding in the woman) “who says that Rose hasn’t been a good daughter to us because she doesn’t come running up to see us at the drop of every hat. But Della and I, we don’t think May Reedy knows what she’s talking about. Do we, Della?”
The woman looked at Della for an answer, but Della pursed her lips and pretended she hadn’t heard the question. She felt that Walter had betrayed her by asking her—here in a public place in front of a total stranger—to choose between her daughter and her best friend (who granted was hard on Rose but was hard on everyone who didn’t do to suit her). She and Walter and Rose and May Reedy weren’t any of this woman’s business. Della realized that she hadn’t asked the woman her name, and she decided not to. She decided that she wouldn’t include the woman in her list of people to get cards.
Della finished her coffee and set the mug down firmly. Even though she and Walter hadn’t rested enough yet to recover from the day’s activities, it was clearly time to leave. They would just stand up and walk out and leave this woman and the angry young couple and their pitiful baby, and they would march straight across to the Civic Center and this time stand for a real long time in front of the cute cutaway house and she would point out to Walter how neat and clean everything was. She put her hands on top of the table and tried to catch Walter’s eye.
But then the boy in front of her stood up. Della wanted to look away so she wouldn’t be caught staring, but the way he positioned himself behind his chair, his hands clenched white against the plastic back, made her realize that he was gong to say or do something that she would want to know about ahead of time. He looked at the girl angrily, and when he spoke he made no attempt to lower his voice.
“Well, what the hell do you want to do?” he said.
The girl didn’t answer, and he lifted the chair several inches off the floor, then banged it down, shoving it into the table so that the table shook.
“Be careful of the baby,” the girl said. “You’re going to hurt her.”
She pushed her chair back, then picked the baby off the table and laid it in her lap. Though she rocked the baby back and forth with her legs, Della felt that she wasn’t paying attention to it and was no more concerned for it than the boy was.
“I can’t stand this anymore,” the boy said. “I don’t know what you want to do. I don’t know what you want me to do. This ain’t my fault. You can’t blame me for any of this!”
The girl began crying, and she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and put her face in her hands. Della had never heard anyone cry like the girl: “Boo hoo hoo,” she said, like someone pretending to weep, like a little girl trying to get someone’s sympathy. But the crying, nevertheless, was real.
“Stop that!” the boy said. “Stop that goddamn crying.” When she didn’t, the boy grew angrier. “You dumb bitch!” he said. “You stupid bitch!”
Walter and the woman finally had turned in their seats to face the couple, but now they both looked at Della as if she could explain what was happening. Della saw the waitress start down the length of the counter toward a door which led to the back, pause for a second, then open the door and step through it. “Hey, you,” Walter said. Della thought at first Walter was talking to the waitress, but he was looking at the young couple. “Hold it down. This is no place for that. This is a public place. There are ladies here.”
The effect on the boy was immediate. His head jerked up away from the girl, and he glared at Walter.
“You son of a bitch,” he said. “You stay out of this. This ain’t your business. This ain’t your life. You mind your own fucking business!”
The boy’s body shook as if he had lost control of it, and Della was afraid he would lunge at Walter: she imagined him leaping across the space which divided them and knocking him to the floor. Instead, he merely stood there, as if he was beginning to think he had already gone too far, and for a second Della thought he too was going to cry. When Walter stood up, however, the boy spat across the table towards him, and the spittle landed at his feet. Then he pounded the chair up and down again, and the girl pushed back and muttered, “oh no, oh no,” over and over. He picked up a Coca-Cola can and slammed it to the floor so hard that it bounced twice, then hit the front of the counter and rolled back, coming to rest against the leg of the girl’s chair.
Della thought she could hear her heart beating. She thought she could hear it pushing blood out of itself, sucking it in and pushing it out. She began to feel sick, and she wiped the perspiration from her upper lip with her napkin. The woman at their table had picked up her needlepoint and was holding it in front of her, as if for protection.
When the boy slammed the chair down on the floor one last time, Della stretched her hand out to Walter, as if she knew what he ought to do, but the boy, so quickly that no one could even think to try to prevent him, ran out the front door, looked up and down the street, then turned right and was gone. It took Della a moment to understand that, despite his anger, the boy hadn’t really harmed anyone, at least physically. But his violence, or the memory of it, remained in the room like a shudder of air, even after he had left.
“Well, I never,” the woman said. She looked from Della to Walter, then back. “Did you ever?” she asked.
The girl was still crying, and Della stood up to go to her. She had no idea what she would say, but she would put her hand on her shoulder to show that she had seen everything and understood. Before she could do that, though, the girl stood up and turned towards the door. Her face was red and swollen, but her expression was as angry as the boy’s had been. She held her baby tightly against her chest, and— despite the furor—the baby still did not cry.
The girl stepped in front of Della, her shape intense and sharp to Della’s eyes.
“Here!” the girl said. She shoved the baby forward and Della held her arms out without thinking what she was doing. “Here! I can’t stand this! I can’t take this anymore!” Then she too left, rushing through the door, then blurring across the window in the direction the boy had taken.
“Well I never!” the woman repeated.
The baby in Della’s arms was very light, almost like nothing but the blanket itself, but she squirmed and brought a tiny fist up to gouge at her cheek. She looked at Della, then yawned indifferently and closed her eyes.
“I really never in my life!” the woman said. “Where do you suppose they went?”
The waitress reappeared behind the counter. She told them that she had summoned the police and that they needed to stay as witnesses. Her face was grim and she pulled her lips into a tight line as if she knew that she alone had been able to take control of the situation.
“That girl could have been Rose,” Della told Walter. She didn’t care what the stranger with them would think. “That could have been Rose as easy as anything.”
“I know it, honey,” Walter said. “I know it surely as you said it.”
“Well, I know one thing,” the woman said. She pushed her chair back, as if trying to distance herself from Della and the baby. “Shirley would never do anything like that.”
Della pushed the blanket away from the baby’s arms and, when she placed her finger against the tiny hand, the baby grasped the finger and held on. Along the inner side of the baby’s forearm were two small circles of scabs, so perfectly patterned that Della knew—even before she pulled up the terry cloth shirt to reveal two other circles around the baby’s nipples—that they were not the result of anything natural.
Walter and the woman stood up to look. The woman stepped back immediately and said that she found what she had seen disgusting: she said that people like that ought not to have children and that the police should take the baby away from the parents and throw the parents in jail.
Walter touched one of the scabs with his finger. “They burned her with cigarettes,” he said. The woman shook her head. “They should throw them in jail and lose the key!” she said.
Della grabbed up the yellow bag the young mother had also left. She walked to the back of the cafe and into the door marked “Ladies.” As soon as she was inside, she turned on the water and dropped the round rubber stopper over the drain, laid the baby on the counter, and undressed her, then removed her own sweater. She picked the baby up and ran her hand over the smooth back and bottom, looking in the mirror for any other scabs, but found none. She pulled open the top of the yellow bag and emptied it out onto the counter top: she chose a small rag and two disposable diapers, then scooted everything else—the bottle of milk, a pink and yellow pacifier, a dirty T-shirt—off the counter into the trash basket and dropped the bag onto the floor and kicked it out of the way. She leaned forward and turned off the water, then dipped her elbow into it: satisfied that it was the right temperature, she lowered the baby into the sink and washed her with the rag, as gently as if she were baptizing her.
When she was satisfied that the baby was as clean as she could make her without using the harsh liquid soap in the metal container below the mirror, Della laid the baby on one of the diapers and patted her dry. Then, confused only for a second by the odd flaps of tape, she put the other diaper on her. Finally, holding the baby safely on the counter top, she wrapped the sweater around her, picked her up, and returned to the cafe.
The woman was standing next to the counter, away from Walter, and she and the waitress were talking in low voices. When he saw Della, Walter came forward to meet her: “We need to get going,” he said. He touched her arm, just under the baby’s head. “The three of us’ve had a long day.”
As he spoke, the patrol car pulled up, its blue light revolving into and away from the restaurant.
“Yes,” Della agreed. “We need to take this little girl home.” She pulled the baby, which had only now begun to whimper, closer to her, and, without speaking to the two women, who seemed now uncertain about what was happening, she and Walter walked outside to meet the policemen.
The wind was flapping and bulging the awning above the restaurant entrance, and Della cuddled the baby closely against her breast to protect her as much as possible.
Walter told the policemen, both so young they could have been brothers to the couple who had abandoned their baby, that he and his wife hadn’t really seen anything until suddenly a young man at another table yelled at his girl friend and ran out. He said that he felt the waitress had meant well but had probably overreacted. Della added that she and her husband and their granddaughter had to get back to the rest of their family and that they really couldn’t help them anymore than that. She moved forward, Walter close behind her, and the two policemen stepped apart to let them by.
“That lady in there with the needlepoint,” Walter said. “She might be able to help you. She seemed to know who that couple was.”
“That’s right,” Della said. “But she was acting real strange too. I don’t know that you could count on her to say anything helpful.”
“We’ll just go straight home,” Walter said, as soon as they were far enough away that the policemen couldn’t possibly hear them. “We’ll just say we met Rose here and decided to bring her baby home with us for awhile.”
“Oh my Lord,” Della said and laughed. “What will May Reedy say?”
“One thing we know,” Walter said. “She won’t be speechless.”
“That’s right,” Della agreed. “But we don’t have to listen.”
As they walked, she felt herself and Walter, their feet light and painless, being lifted with the baby above everything and everybody else. She felt like someone in a fairy tale who had been given a wonderful and unexpected gift and now had to head back somewhere real and take care of it. She and Walter could do it, she thought. They could get away with it.
In five minutes they reached the parking lot of the Civic Center, which loomed like a gigantic brown mushroom over the straight rows of cars. Because their car was outside the far entrance, it seemed easier to go through the building than around it.
“We’ve got to hurry straight through here, Della,” Walter said. He held his index finger up and blew on it as if it were a smoking gun. “We’re fugitives from the law!”
The crowd inside the Center had begun to pick up again after the early afternoon doldrums, but Della and Walter knew where they were going and they didn’t get lost among the people.
Though she knew they had to hurry, Della stopped in front of the model home and looked it over one last time. In order to keep their new granddaughter from harm, she and Walter were going to have to do a lot of fancy lying: it was going to require more than just gilding the lily, and she understood that life had to be that way. But she held little Florida up for a moment, wanting to give her at least one look at life as it might be were everything so innocent and clear that you wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid even if the walls around you disappeared.