In their neighbourhood between seven and eight p.m., after her children had fallen asleep and as the streetlights blinked on, Jane Goldman stepped on to her front porch to listen to the faint sound of screaming float from the other houses on her street. The screaming was the sound of children protesting everything: eating, bathing, sharing toys, going to sleep. As the weather had warmed up she stood outside on her porch, smoking a rare cigarette and listening. This was her life now, at forty: she had married a man whom she admired and loved, and after the initial cruelty of early marriage – the fact that they betrayed the other simply by being themselves – they fell into the exhausting momentum that was their lives. They had produced a son, now five years old, and a daughter, now ten months, two beings who hurtled into the world, ruby-lipped, peach-skinned, and who now held them hostage as surely as masked gunmen controlled a bank.
Jane was a freelance editor for technical manuals, a job that she did not love but had drifted into, and her husband, after seeing his business as a high-priced website designer dry up, settled in a job as a consultant. They had moved to a mid-sized city in South Carolina. It was not their first choice and they did not know if they would ever feel at home there but they could afford, finally, a small house as well as a car. They had found their own happiness, weighted by resignation: that they were who they were, that they could never truly know the thoughts of another person, that their love was bruised by the carelessness of their own parents (his mother, her father); that they would wander the world in their dreams with ghostly, intangible lovers, that their children would move from adoration of them to fury, that they and their parents would die in different cities, that they would never accomplish anything that would leave any lasting mark on the world. They had longed for this, from the first lonely moment of their childhoods when they realized they could not marry their fathers or mothers, through the burning romanticism of their teens, to the bustling search of their twenties, and there was the faint regret that this tumult and exhaustion was what they had longed for, and soon it, too, would be gone.
Jane stood on the porch each night, watching the dusk settle on to their quiet street, and she did not go inside immediately. She sat watching the other families move behind the windows, gliding silently in their aquariums of golden light.
One morning soon after, Jane sat cross-legged on the floor of the bathroom at 6 a.m., the baby grappling at her breasts, and watched the line form on the test. She and her husband had not been trying for another child. She pressed her lips to her baby girl’s soft head, this one she wanted to love, and she understood, clearly, that she did not feel capable of loving a third child. She had given everything to the others. She kissed the baby’s head, grateful for the aura of kindness the baby bestowed on her, for there was now no illusion, as there had been when she was a young woman, that this being inside of her would not become a child; she held the thick, muscular result in her hands. The baby’s tiny soft hands made her feel faint. They lived in a part of the country where a third (or fourth or fifth) unexpected child arrived and, with jovial weariness, families ‘made room’ for them. She looked at the red line and it measured all the moments remaining in her life. Suddenly, she was afraid.
It was time for breakfast. The husband staggered awake after a depressing dream in which a childhood friend had retired early and moved to Tuscany. He was in a surly mood believing that his ideal life had passed him by. The kitchen smelled fetid, as though an animal had crawled into a corner and died. The boy, still grief-stricken over his sister’s birth, utilizing their guilt over this to demand endless presents, described his longing for a Slinky that a colleague of his had brought to pre-school. ‘I did want it,’ he wailed in a monotone. ‘I did. I did. I did.’ He wanted to wear his Superman shirt with the red cape attached to the shoulders and spent his breakfast leaping out of his seat and trying to shoot his sister with a plastic gun. She, too, already had preferences, and screamed until Jane put her into a purple outfit with floppy bunny ears. They wanted to be anything but human. Her husband could not find anything to put on his lunch sandwich and, with a sort of martyred defiance, slapped margarine on bread. ‘What a man does to save money,’ he murmured.
‘Why don’t you just buy your lunch?’ she asked.
‘Do you know how much that costs?’ he said. ‘Do you know how much I’m saving this family by eating crap on bread every day?’
‘I want a Slinky,’ the boy moaned. The baby screamed.
‘Will everyone please shut up?’ she bellowed.
‘Don’t say that around the children,’ he said.
‘I can say what I want.’
‘Don’t say shut up,’ said the son, in a ponderous tone.
‘Eat your breakfast,’ she hissed at him.
‘I don’t want it,’ he wailed, writhing out of his seat and on to the floor, where he curled up under the table as though preparing for a nuclear bomb. She had no sympathy for any of them. She glanced at her husband; their love had been, like all love at the beginning, a mutual and essential misunderstanding, a belief that each could absorb qualities held by the other, that each could save the other from loneliness, that their future held endless promise, that they would not be separated at death. This version of joy was what they had chosen of their own free will.
The baby, not wanting to be outdone, suddenly struck a pose like a fashion model. ‘How cute,’ said the husband; they all hungered for a moment of beauty. The baby laughed, a glittery sound. The boy wept. The future lay before them, limp and endless. The husband got on his hands and knees by the son. ‘Come on,’ he said, his voice exquisite with tenderness. ‘You’re a big boy now.’ He pleaded for maturity for about five minutes, and when his voice was about to snap, the boy crawled out and donned a backpack, which made him resemble a miniature college student. He turned around, delighted, so they all applauded.
Their son ran out on to their lawn. There was a sweet green freshness in the morning air. It was a Tuesday; she believed she was six weeks along; there was a bad taste in her mouth, of ash. Behind them was their house, a flimsy tribute to the middle class, but one bad car crash, one growing lump, a few missed paychecks would send them packing. They could not afford to have a heart attack, to lose their minds. It was just spring: daffodils burst out of the cold earth. She and her husband stood, bewildered, watching the children dance in the golden Southern sunlight. She loved them so deeply her skin felt as if it was burning, and she also knew that she could not endure one more.
She called the babysitter, kissed her children goodbye and went to the clinic. She was afraid that he would have tried to convince her to have the third child, that he would have felt himself capable of more love than he actually held. She wept on the way there, for her certainty that she could not have another, for her desire to be good enough for the boy and girl. When she arrived at the clinic, she had stopped weeping. She drove home, sore and cramping, three hours later, down the broad grey lanes bordered by fast-food emporiums, wanting to swerve in and run inside to the high-school girls in bright hats behind the counters so that she could hear them say brightly, May I help you?
Sometimes during the day there would be a knock on the door, and it would be their eight-year-old neighbour, Mary Grace. She was the only person who was ever at the door. She was beloved by their son, and for this reason, Jane let her wander into their house at all times. Mary Grace was fiercely competitive in all areas including height, hour of bedtime and the quality of bribe her mother had given her in order for her to get a flu shot. She had thin brown hair, was heavy, ordinary, and her eyes were hooded with the suspicion that her parents would do anything possible to keep from listening to her.
Mary Grace’s parents were silent, mysterious types who were very involved in their Baptist church. Jane and her husband tried to guess why the parents never spoke to them and why they never invited the son to their house. Perhaps Mary Grace’s father was having an affair. Or the mother was having an affair. Perhaps they never had sex or had bad sex. Perhaps they did not make each other laugh. Perhaps the mother was sad because her daughter was not beautiful, or because she wished she had herself become a ballet dancer, a doctor, a rock star. Perhaps one drank too much. Perhaps he wanted to live in Australia. Perhaps she hated his taste in clothes. Perhaps one of them had cancer. Perhaps they did not want their floors to get dirty. Would they break up or marinate in their sourness for years? Mary Grace’s parents did not set up any sort of social life for her. Jane noticed the wife spending most of her free time snipping their front hedges with gardening implements that were large and vicious. Jane saw the husband on his dutiful evening walks around the block, his eyes cast down, his feet lifting in a peculiar way so he seemed to be tiptoeing across ice. Mary Grace scuttled over to Jane’s at least once a day, neatly dressed and clean but she always had the demeanour of someone who was starving.
That day, she was grateful for the girl’s knock. Jane had returned from the clinic, opened the door to her home slowly, as though she were an intruder. The children noticed nothing; their absorption in their own crises was complete. They saw only that she was their mother and fell towards her ravenously. She was aching and exhausted, but the babysitter couldn’t stay. Jane needed a stranger in the kitchen, someone to speak because she could not.
‘Let’s make a magic potion,’ Mary Grace announced. She believed touchingly that she could realize her great dreams in their home. The girl rushed into the kitchen. Her greedy hands rummaged through drawers, plucked juice boxes from cupboards. ‘We need to make a magic potion,’ she said. ‘We need olive oil. Lemonade. Baking soda. Seltzer.’
‘Yes,’ her son said, gazing at Mary Grace.
Jane brought the items over and Mary Grace poured them carefully into a glass. Her son was now whispering to her, his face intent, and the girl said, rolling her eyes, ‘No. It will not make you into a cheetah.’ Suddenly, Jane looked at Mary Grace and felt anger flash through her.
‘He can become a cheetah if he wants,’ Jane broke in.
‘Then I want to become a princess,’ said Mary Grace.
The baby pushed some magnetic photos off the refrigerator. The children stared out from the photos like prisoners shackled by their parents’ desire to have something to love. She brought them some vinegar and mayonnaise and seltzer and watched them stir their concoction. Mary Grace looked up and said, ‘My mother’s doing her fitness video. She wants to get to her high-school weight.’
‘Oh,’ said Jane.
‘She was going to become a fitness instructor but then she was dating my dad and they knew each other three weeks and then she dropped everything to have me.’ She giggled frantically, as though she was not sure what sound to make. Then Mary Grace grasped Jane’s forearm. The girl’s nails were long and sharp. ‘Can we add perfume to make princesses?’ she asked.
Jane allowed the girl to hold her arm for a moment, even though Mary Grace’s fingernails were painful. ‘No,’ she said. She patted Mary Grace’s hand, carefully, in what she hoped was a reassuring gesture. ‘I’m sure she’s very glad she has you,’ she said and reached up to a cabinet for some baking soda, which forced Mary Grace to release her hand.
‘Then she had my brother, like that, boom, and then my sister, and she says if she gets back to her high school weight, she’ll look seventeen again.’ Mary Grace took the baking soda, poured it in and the mixture began to fizz and rise. The children shrieked at the possibilities implied in this and when the potion puttered out looked towards Jane. ‘More!’ called her son.
‘I want a snack now,’ Mary Grace said.
Jane opened the refrigerator. She felt more blood slip out of her and sharply took a breath. ‘Do you want some carrots?’ she asked.
‘I want ice cream with hot fudge syrup,’ said the girl. ‘Please.’
In Boston, where Jane used to live, her husband had a successful business constructing corporate websites, but he most enjoyed helping people create elaborate personal shrines that floated in no place on earth. People wanted all sorts of things on them: personal philosophy, photos both personal and professional, diary fragments, links to other people whom they admired but to whom they had no actual connection. Her husband understood their desire to communicate their best selves with an unknown, invisible public; a shy person, he had forced himself to become sociable and liked convincing people of all the intimate facts they needed to tell strangers about themselves. When she met him, he was exuberant and she was shy, disdainful of websites; she was the only person he had ever met who did not want one for herself. ‘Don’t you want people to click on and find out all about you?’ he asked. ‘Your achievements and innermost thoughts?’ He was leaning, one arm against a wall, clutching cheap wine in a plastic glass. They were just thirty, old enough to have started to look old.
‘No,’ she said.
He sensed she was holding back and that made her appear that she concealed something deeply valuable. She admired his shamelessness, the way he could go up to anyone at a party and convince them to create a monument to themselves. They had both stumbled out from families in which they felt they did not belong: she, second of four, he, oldest of three. He had a beautiful, careless mother who had left the family for two years when he was seven; this created in him a sharp and fierce practicality, a need to ingratiate himself and to hoard money. She had been belittled by her father and for years had cultivated the aloofness of the shy who secretly believe themselves more brilliant than others. She excelled at finding low-level but glamorous-sounding jobs in advertising, public relations, script-analysis; when her boss asked more of her than she was willing to give, she got herself fired and complained about it for years. Her husband liked her bounty of imaginary talent, enjoyed complaining at parties about how her true worth was never acknowledged. They drifted like this for longer than was necessary, or even decent, but that was the way all their friends in the city lived.
The economy quickly broke apart their life. People and companies were running out of money to create themselves in an invisible space. She had been working as an editor for a small publisher and that was the first job she lost simply because the company was folding. Their rent was shooting up, they were in their late thirties with a three year old, another on the way, and a paltry sum saved for retirement. It was time to move on.
Her husband came home that evening in a cheerful, determined mood, armed with a new digital camera. He wanted to take pictures of them in the garden and arrange them on a website that would record the children’s growth as well as that of the various vegetables and flowers they had recently planted. The routine quality of his new job sometimes filled him with a manic, expansive energy. So many parts of him were unused. The camera had cost $345. ‘We can do this every few days,’ he said. ‘We can tell people about it. They can click on from everywhere and see our garden. We can start a trend!’ She wondered how he had been misunderstood at his work that day. He tried, with difficulty, to arrange the children beside the plot of dirt.
She did not want him to take a picture of her. She did not want later to see a picture of her face on this day.
‘We need more good pictures of you,’ he said, irritation flickering across his face. ‘I look too fat,’ she said.
‘No, you don’t,’ he said. ‘You need a picture with pearls. Holding a rose. Jackie Kennedy. A socialite surrounded by her darling cherubs.’ He laughed.
‘Oh, come on,’ she said. It was a sweet but clichéd world view that he reverted to when he felt uprooted, and it comforted him. He had nurtured it when he was alone and neglected as a child and formed his ideas of happiness, what his family and love should be. He was generally a smart man but he was prone to mythologizing: her beauty, their children’s capacities, their lazy sunny future on an island surrounded by sea.
She had been the daughter of frightened parents who cut up apples in her lunch so she would not choke and drove only on the right side of the road, and she had been drawn to his point of view when they were dating, wanted his assumed confidence to envelop her. She remembered the first time she saw his childhood house, in a suburban tract in Los Angeles – it was a small house that attempted to resemble a Southern mansion, with columns on the porch and a trim rose-bed in the front. There was something in the stalwart embrace of other people’s tastes that made Jane envious – not of the house so much as the purity of longing.
She heard the children shriek and there was no such simplicity. Your own family was the death of it.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Throw something on. Wash your face.’
She looked at him. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
She did not want to injure his perception of himself as a good person. But now he clutched his pillow as though he were drowning.
Her family stumbled around the barren garden, hair lit up by the late afternoon sun. He was clutching his camera, eager to record the physical growth of their children and vegetables. ‘Look at me,’ she said, wanting him to see everything.
His face flinched, bewildered. ‘You look beautiful,’ he said with hope.
The children were in bed, sleeping. She brought blankets to their chins, watched their breath rise in and out. Their eyelids twitched with fervent dreams. The sight of her children sleeping always brought up in her a love that was vast and irreproachable. No one could question this love. She remembered the first time she and her husband hired a babysitter and went to dinner, two months after their boy was born. They had walked the streets, ten minutes from their home. They had hoped they would forget about him, that when they sat down in a restaurant, they would enjoy the same easy joy of self-absorption. But they realized, slowly, that they would never in their lives ever forget about him. The rest of the date they spent in a stunned silence understanding, for the first time, how this love would both reward and entrap them for the rest of their lives.
She sat beside her husband in bed. She was still cramping; she went to the bathroom to urinate and there was still blood. She was relieved as she felt the blood leave her, pretending that it was just another period, but did not want to look too closely at the material that came from her, though the nurse had said it was too early for there to be any form. The names they might have used came to her: Charles, Wendy, Diane. But they were names for nothing now, air. There was no kindness she could offer it now, and that made her feel dry, stunted. She went back to her children’s rooms and kissed them again.
She could not sleep. She sat in the darkness, and suddenly she noticed a light go on in her neighbours’ house. Their houses were side by side, about ten feet apart, and the neighbours’ blinds were usually closed. Tonight she saw that they were open as though they were trying to enjoy the new warmth. The mother had put up curtains, but they were sheer, and Jane could see right into their room.
She saw Mary Grace’s mother sitting on her bed. Their bedroom had been decorated with the lukewarm blandness of a hotel room, and was so clean as to deny any human interaction inside it. The mother was heavier than she had imagined; the jumping jacks seemed to have had no effect. She wore a frilly aqua nightie that made her resemble a large, clumsy girl. She was sitting on the edge of the bed and suddenly pulled the nightie over her head. She was watching the husband, who wore bright boxer shorts and no shirt. The curtain lifted in the warm wind. The husband walked over to the wife and she lifted her face for a kiss; the husband pulled her breast as though he was milking a cow. The wife’s face was blank.
‘I know what you forgot! The detergent!’ she exclaimed, in a clear voice. The husband drew back. His shoulders slumped as though he were begging. There was quiet and Jane waited for his answer.
‘Sorry,’ he said. There was a plaintive quality to this word, his inability to come up with any sort of excuse; it seemed to designate everything about their future. The lights went off.
Jane sat in her quiet room, startled by what she had just seen. She and her husband had not had sex in three weeks. However, when they had, she believed that it was superior to whatever was going on across the way. She was suddenly deeply competitive, wanted to wake him up, to show the neighbours their own prowess in this endeavour. She was comforted by this, her aggressive pity, briefly, but felt herself cramping again. She placed her hand on her stomach; the cramps stopped.
Her husband slept. She stared into the quiet room for a while. The moments left in her life suddenly encased her like a grave; she got out of bed and went downstairs. She told herself she needed to take out the garbage but she just needed to get outside. Opening the door, the night was thick and black and the air was fresh. Usually she locked the night out of their house but now she stepped into it. She threw the bag of trash into the can and stood in front of her house. The cicadas sounded like an enormous machine. The sky was a riot of stars. She glanced around the empty street and began, slowly, to run.
The neighbourhood was beautiful in a sinister way at this hour, flowers and bushes randomly lit by small spotlights, as though each family wanted to illuminate some glorious part of itself. It was ten-thirty and the only discernible human sound was the canned television laughter floating out of windows. The houses looked as though they had been anchored on these neat green plots of land forever. How much longer would her neighbours wake up, shower, eat their cereal, argue, dress their children, weep, prepare dinner, sit by the television, make love, sleep? She ran slowly, the sidewalk damp under her naked feet; she smelled the flowers, the jasmine, honeysuckle, magnolia, sweet and ferocious and dark. No one knew anything about her, and she believed she did not know anything about anyone; she was filled with a loneliness so strong she thought her heart would burst.
She ran one block like this and stopped, breathing hard. Her temples were sweating. She was a middle-aged woman in her pyjamas, running from her house at ten-thirty at night. Looking at her house, the small night light in her son’s room cast a lovely blue glow through the window. From here, his room looked enchanted, as if inhabited by fairies. Her breathing slowed, and the night air felt cool in her lungs. She headed back to her house slowly, as though she had just been out for a walk. When she glanced up at the neighbours’ bedroom window, she noticed that their blinds were now shut.
Mary Grace knocked on the door at three-thirty the next day. Jane thought she was dressed up early for Halloween, with a short blue accordion-skirt and a T-shirt with a halo made of rhinestones on it, but it was actually a cheerleader outfit. She was going to cheerleader practice for Halo Hoops, the church basketball team. ‘I have to go to our basketball game at church,’ she said. ‘I have ten minutes. That is all.’ Jane held open the door and Mary Grace jumped inside and did a twirl.
‘Can I marry you, Mary Grace?’ her son asked.
‘No,’ said Mary Grace. ‘I’m older than you.’ She looked at Jane. ‘I’m going to be a superstar singer. I’m going to be in the top five. Wanna hear –’ She belted out a few words of a pop song. She was stocky, tuneless and loud. Jane’s son was enchanted and requested more. He grabbed Mary Grace’s hand and Jane’s heart flinched.
‘Can we make cookies?’ Mary Grace asked. ‘Quick?’
They bustled into the kitchen and proceeded to bake. No one came to take the girl to Halo Hoops. The kitchen suddenly smelled like a bakery. Mary Grace stood too close to her. ‘Do you like my singing?’ she pleaded.
‘Sure,’ said Jane.
‘Me, too,’ said the girl. Jane felt Mary Grace’s breath on her arm. The girl’s breath had the warmth of a dragon or other unnatural beast. The girl’s belief in Jane’s worth was awful. ‘You have pretty hair,’ said Mary Grace, reaching up to Jane and touching a strand. The girl had a startlingly gentle touch. Her hand smelled of sweet dough and chocolate.
‘Thanks,’ said Jane. The boy and the baby stared at Mary Grace. The baby, hanging on Jane’s hip, reached out and swatted Mary Grace away. Mary Grace’s face tightened, aggrieved.
‘Do I have pretty hair?’ asked Mary Grace.
The baby yanked Jane’s hair. ‘Ow!’ said Jane grabbing the tiny hand.
‘Do I?’ asked Mary Grace; it was almost a shout.
Before Jane could answer, her son stepped forward and grabbed Mary Grace’s arm. ‘Do you want to stay for dinner?’ he asked.
Mary Grace recoiled from his touch. Jane saw all of the girl’s self-hatred light up her eyes; that she had no other friends besides this five year old, that her parents did not want her at their table. ‘No,’ she snapped, ‘Why do you keep asking me!’
Her son dropped his head, wounded. Jane slapped her hand hard on the table. It made a clear, sharp sound. ‘Then just go home!’ she yelled at Mary Grace. ‘Go home, now!’
The children were suddenly alert. Jane was frozen, ashamed. The girl slowly picked up her jacket and, shoulders slumped, eyes cast downward, trudged to the door, a position already so well-worn it had carved itself into her posture. Her son screamed, ‘Stay!’ and skidded toward her, arms open, but Mary Grace moved to the door and was gone.
That night Jane sat beside her husband and realized that they had known each other for fifteen years. She wanted to tell her husband something new about herself, something she had never told anyone before. She wanted to tell him a secret that would bring them to a new level of closeness. What else could she tell him? Would he be more grateful for a humiliating moment in her life or a transforming one? Did people love others based on the ways they had similarly debased themselves, or the proud ways they had lifted themselves up?
‘What?’ he asked, sensing a disturbance.
‘I yelled at that girl,’ she said. ‘She was snippy and I couldn’t stand it. She turned around and left.’
‘They already hate us,’ he said, and returned to his book.
She was suddenly revved up for an argument.
‘I’m wasting my life picking up towels,’ she said. ‘For every ten towels I pick up, you pick up one. I’m sick of it, and they smell like goats.’
Now he looked up. ‘I pick up towels,’ he said. ‘Plenty of them.’
‘Not as many as me,’ she said.
He jumped out of bed, standing on the balls of his feet, like a boxer who had been secretly preparing for this barrage, and then grabbed a robe and tossed it over himself. ‘What do I give up for this family! Look at my leg.’ He held it out. ‘If I had any time at all to exercise, then I would be able to get in great shape. I could run a marathon! I could make love ten times a day.’ The edge in his voice, the raw and bottomless yearning, was so sharply reminiscent of her own father’s in her childhood that she felt time as a funnel, as though she’d been emptied into her old home, the same person but just a different size. It made her feel faint. Thirty years later, had they simply recreated the longings of their own parents? They rushed down to the kitchen as they often did during an argument, as though the simple symbols of a domestic life, the plastic-wrapped bread and bananas and stale coffee in the coffee maker, would fool them into believing that they understood how to create a home and provide tender guidance for their children. He sank down into his chair and began to tap his foot nervously, looking anywhere but at her.
They were guideless, marching beside each other into nowhere. He stretched out in his seat, laying his arm on the chair next to him, in a gesture that did not make him look expansive, as it did when he was a young man, but exposed. She could not bear not to tell him any longer; she reached forward and grabbed his arm.
‘We would have had a third child,’ she said. ‘I stopped it.’
He looked up.
‘This week,’ she said.
She remembered the night that she and her husband had brought their son home from the hospital. They had cupped him in their hands, a person just two days old. When he began to cry, his first human wails rising into their apartment, she and her husband realized that they were supposed to comfort him. They had looked at each other, frightened, and she felt a profound sense of vulnerability and aloneness.
He stared at her. Carefully, he clasped his hands. His eyes were bright; she realized there were tears in them.
‘Did you forget about me?’ he asked.
His voice was soft and it sounded as though it came directly out of the black night outside. Inside, the kitchen light cast a fraudulent cozy glow over them.
‘We couldn’t have done it,’ she said.
‘You didn’t want to,’ he replied, sharply.
‘You didn’t either,’ she said. ‘I know you.’
‘Do you?’ he asked. ‘Look at me. What am I thinking right now?’
She looked into his dark eyes. When they got married, she wanted to know, to own everything about him. ‘You’re sad,’ she said.
‘What else?’ he asked.
She leaned toward him and looked closer. She and her husband were sitting beside each other, half-dressed, their windows open. She thought she heard a sad laughter in the neighbours’ house, carried through the street on a warm and fragrant wind.
Mary Grace was back the next afternoon, washing up at their door as inevitably as the tide. As she stood at the door there was something ancient about her, the way she smiled warily at Jane, scratching her leg and pretending that yesterday had not happened. She was optimistic to the point of delusion; she loved them simply because they opened the door.
‘Could we make a lemonade stand?’ Mary Grace asked. ‘We could sell lemonade for twenty-five cents.’
Jane moved outside. It was a cool day, with drizzly rain. ‘I don’t know,’ said Jane, looking at the sky. But her son ran out of the door, bubbling with joy that she was back. ‘Yes!’ he yelled. He and Mary Grace arranged themselves around a card table in the front yard, a pitcher of lemonade and some cups between them. Mary Grace clutched an umbrella. Jane watched their small, dignified backs as they regarded the neighbourhood, set in their belief that others would want to drink their lemonade.
She did not have many plastic cups. She thought of Mary Grace’s mother sitting on her bed and looking at her husband. She thought she could ask if she had any cups; she would try to talk to her. She did not even have the woman’s phone number, but looked it up the phone book and picked up the phone.
‘Hello,’ said Mary Grace’s mother. Her voice sounded high-pitched and young.
‘It’s Jane Goldman, next door,’ she said. ‘Mary Grace’s over here right now. I just wanted to say hi.’ She waited. There was a silence. ‘Well, the kids are having a lemonade stand and well, I wondered if you have any plastic cups –’
She heard a deep intake of breath. ‘Stop,’ said Mary Grace’s mother.
‘Excuse me?’ said Jane.
‘She says you keep feeding her.’
‘Look,’ said Jane, her hands suddenly shaking, ‘Look.’ She closed her eyes. ‘She comes over here because she likes it. You could thank us –’
‘She knows that she can get sweets from you. She needs to lose ten pounds. I don’t want her to look ugly. Do you?’
‘No!’ said Jane. ‘Maybe she’d stay at your house if you actually talked to her –’
‘I’m a good mother,’ said Mary Grace’s mother. ‘I keep her clean. She minds her manners.’ There was the sound of growling. At first Jane thought it was the mother but then realized it was the family dog. ‘Stay away from her,’ said Mary Grace’s mother, her voice rising, ‘Stop feeding her –’
Jane banged down the phone. ‘Dammit!’ she yelled. She heard Mary Grace and her son laughing outside and she knew that it would be the last time the girl would visit their house. It would be his first grief, the loss of a friend; it would tip like a domino against the losses to come. Mary Grace would have her own disappointments with her sour and careless parents and the families would live side by side until this particular race in life was over.
She looked outside. The children sat, stalwart, behind a plastic pitcher. How beautiful her son looked! He looked happier than he had in a long time. The clouds broke apart and sunlight fell upon them. She went outside and bought a cup for a dollar because she had no change. Others bought lemonade, too, with dollars, and the children still had no change, and within an hour they had ten dollars. Huddled under their umbrellas, the children were gleeful at their unexpected riches. ‘I will buy billions and billions of toys!’ her son screamed. The baby walked around in joyous circles. Everyone – the children, the parents – were visitors on earth; they were here briefly and then would vanish. She stood in the darkening light, staring at the children and wondered how she could be good enough for them.
Photograph © Jagrap