Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Sorry I Kept You


Mona wraps a blue turban around her head and fastens it with a butterfly brooch. Some loose gray hairs catch the sunlight. Makeup cakes the lines of her gaunt face. She adjusts her turquoise ski pants and yellow-checkered blouse.

 “Got to stay clean,” she tells the bodega window that serves as her mirror.

She turns to a plastic tarpaulin spread under the store’s canopy, arranges her clothes by type. Blouses. Pants. Underwear. All washed at a neighborhood launderette blocks away, and hauled back in a shopping cart. The clothes make small piles. A brown leather purse never leaves her broomstick arm, spangled with every charm bracelet she owns.

It’s a cloudless May afternoon, on the cusp of too warm.

 “More spring fever,” she says darkly.

Last night she had a close call. Some jerk tried to cum on her face while she slept in a dark corner of the subway. He almost got away with it. But the man’s rank odor, his uncontrollable mumbling, awakened her in time to escape.

Becky uses the liquor store window to judge how the turbaned woman reacts to passersby. She wants to avoid another incident. Her effort last week, over on Canal Street, ended with a huge woman throwing garbage at her from a trash bin. The young photographer had to take cover behind a mailbox. In the end, she gave the angry woman some money anyway. Guilt money. Tossed from a safe distance, and encouraged by a breeze, the folded cash slid across the sidewalk to her irate subject, who had trouble bending to collect it.

What exactly caused the outrage remains a mystery. Becky thought they were getting along well. The woman was friendly and clever. She seemed okay with getting photographed, delighted in telling how she spied on anti-Vietnam-war groups for the FBI. And then for no reason, her good humor took a nosedive. Her face puffed red with fury. She barked curses by the truckload, hurled garbage like an Olympian shot-putter.

And Becky put as much distance between them as she could. She already has enough photos to choose from. But one more subject wouldn’t hurt. Especially one so visually compelling.

Mona notices the petite and striking girl who lingers across the street, feigning interest in a liquor display. Doing a bad job of it too. The kid looks like a whore in those hot pants and skimpy halter. But so many young things do these days. She’s probably a college student or another drop-out from the suburbs. Not that Mona dislikes the young. Their handouts are her bread and butter.

“Honey, why don’t you come over?” Her welcoming gesture is regal. And unlike the girl, she has a candid interest in the liquor store.

But not until tonight. Until it’s time.

“I love your jewelry,” Becky says.

“So do I.” Mona proffers her arm for a close view of the tiny charms. “See how neat and clean I keep these?” She caresses each pile of her clothes. “Not many people take the time to do things right these days. Time is so important don’t you think? How you use it. That goes for timing as well, which is very different—if you get my drift.”

“Sure I do. I like to photograph interesting people I see on the streets. People like you. If I don’t get the timing right, I can lose a great shot.”

“I never do anything until it’s time.” Mona pretends she didn’t hear the bit about photographs. She eyes the large case slung over the girl’s shoulder. This could mean real dough. “I used to have a nice corner in the West Village over on Christopher Street. Made good money all the time. Those gay boys like a gal with style. And they showed it where it counts.”

Her face crinkles in a big smile. She rubs her thumb against her fingers to stress the point.

“Everything was hunky-dory except in bad weather. Then some goon from the piers went and ruined it for me. Started leaning on me for a cut. A big one. But I took care of him all right.” Mona checks out the street, leans forward like she’s sharing a big secret. “I got that fucker drunk. I mean dead drunk on a bottle of skunk hooch. Never touched a drop myself. Just watched him slug it down until he got blotto and passed out. Then I hoofed it crosstown and stayed there. I mean here. So far, so good.

“And I’ll tell you why too. I leave no trace because I’m clean.”

She lights another cigarette, tries to pick the right thread among the many that bind her mind. “Forty years I worked in a good restaurant over in Jersey City.” She twists her body in the wrong direction, towards Brooklyn. It’s always good to give her resume, let the youngster know she’s dealing with quality. “I was head waitress when my boss closed shop on me. He said it was time.”

And soon as she stopped earning, when she needed him most, her janitor husband abandoned her. Thinking of him infuriates her. All those nights she wanted to sleep in peace instead of doing the business. She can feel him press against her now, wanting in without one nice word. The fucker owed her.

“My hubby never got in my pants until it was time. I was brought up right you see. Not like today. Girls running around as if they were—”

She forces herself to stop. After all, the kid does dress like a whore.

“Can I photograph you? Would it be okay?”

Becky slides her camera out in one sure move. She needs to capture Mona’s expression before it loses intensity or disappears completely. All those broad hints about money haven’t been lost on her. They weren’t necessary. Unlike some artists who hide their cameras or shoot at a distance with a zoom lens, she always asks permission, and she always pays.

She fishes in her case for some cash.

 “Here’s something for your patience, of course. If you could just keep thinking what you were thinking. About your husband, I mean.”

Later she’ll try to get the story of that relationship as well. Something she can add to her artist’s statement for the group exhibit, one organized by a feminist collective. She gets down to work fast, shooting from every angle, going in for some telling close-ups.

As for Mona, her thoughts dwell nowhere in the past. She’d like to stub her cigarette out on the camera’s probing lens. But her time’s been bought and paid for. Like a pacemaker, the money stuffed in her bra revives her weary heart. If only a little.

Becky heads south on Bowery once she’s finished working with Mona. She started her series on homeless women last winter, after she left Cooper Union a year short of graduation. The portraits should make a strong contribution to the show. Her first.

In the beginning she tried to help the women she met get the social services they needed. But soon she discovered the city had cut most everything. And none of the women really wanted her help. At least from what she could tell. Most of them had elusive, often exhausting personalities. Some could turn nasty on a dime. She quickly learned it was better to treat them with great respect and sympathy, but never encourage a personal relationship. She’s not a social worker after all.

Confident in her project she lets herself enjoy the warm weather. She savors her youth, her good fortune to live in Manhattan doing as she pleases within her limited means. Wavy auburn hair reaches midway down her torso. It bounces with each step. She passes another seedy bar that caters to down-and-outers. Its gray windows face a grittier joint across the street, where tenements crowd together for support. Only last month a corner building collapsed. The exposed flank had hemorrhaged, stressed to the breaking point by neglect, and one more change of season. Several people died.

Light Saturday traffic races by despite gaping potholes. The sidewalk is scattershot with people young and old, derelict and not. Melancholy sunlight streams over half the street. Deep shadow covers the other. It’s a Hopperesque quality Becky likes. She wends her way past the women who sit in front of her building. The loungers’ ample, middle-aged bodies fit snuggly into beach chairs made of aluminum frames and plastic ribbing. Loud chatter from the group rises over sporadic traffic. Despite the noise, she hears her phone ring from the open window of her second story flat. She races up the stairs to answer.

Becky watches Scott check out the foot traffic on 99th and West End. She can read her brother’s mood from a block away. The nervous tap of his heel. The way his hand works his pocket as if a treasure were lost inside. He keeps craning his neck southward. But he looks the wrong way. Hesitant to the end, Becky stayed on the subway an extra stop, got off at 103rd and walked down. Already she’s late. They’re late.

The humid air smells of ripe garbage baked by a day in the sun. The breeze feels like warm jelly against her skin. Latin music blares from a nearby bodega, some apartments above it. A man across the street stares at her, ready to make a play.

Time to move, one way or the other.

“Darling, let me do that,” Jack says. “You know I’m a pro at reheating food.” He leads Sarah from the stove, gives her a kiss before easing her onto the nearest chair. From an assortment of fragrant cartons, he transfers the takeout meal to several pots. “We got enough for an army here.”

Sarah looks at her trembling hands. And she thought she could make the dinner from scratch, like any other night. But she has to stay busy. Keep moving. From the table, she collects cans and jars of food meant for the aborted, homemade feast. One by one she restocks them in a metal cabinet. Its turquoise color matches the stove, the refrigerator, the sink—and half the linoleum tiles on the checkerboard floor. The other tiles are pink with gold flecks. They dazzle her eyes. Years ago in Riverdale, when she’d gotten too sick to function, cooking was the first thing she couldn’t handle.

“I feel like I’m going to fail my children all over again,” she says.

“You got nothing to worry about, darling.” Jack sits next to her. The chair’s metal tubing squeaks under his weight. “Who in this city doesn’t love Chinese, I’d like to know? And kosher Chinese at that?”

It feels good to take a load off. He’s a little out of breath from his last-minute trip to collect the food order. He doesn’t trust the restaurant’s delivery service. Sometimes they mix up the orders. His gouty big toe—the left one—still complains about his rapid pace. He should’ve taken the car instead. But he couldn’t give up the choice parking spot only a block away. Now he’ll have to forgo even one stalk of asparagus. And wine? Forget about it.

“Darling.” He crinkles his stubby nose, peers through the middle lens of his trifocals. “I think you’re smudged again. Only a little. You did ask me to tell you.”

Sarah checks her clouded reflection in the serving tray. Why did she choose tonight to try a new brand? Why can’t she stop rubbing her mouth? “I’m going to fix my face. Please don’t turn on anything but the crock pot until they arrive.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Jack grabs a few spoons to sample his favorite dishes—starting with the Szechuan beef and black mushrooms. His nibbling distracts from worry about how the dinner might go. How Sarah will react if it’s a bust. If she’ll blame him since the evening was his big idea. The chewy beef makes his dentures slip.

“Hi Sweetie,” Becky says to her brother’s back.

“Where did you? I’ve been standing here for—”

“Please. Not now.” She holds up her free hand like a traffic cop.

He gives in, forces a grin.

With his wet hair combed back, he looks like a young man, no longer a boy. Worry lines briefly etch his pale forehead. And he’s made an effort. Gone are the usual T-shirt and frayed jeans, replaced by light chinos, a blue dress shirt smoothly pressed. He still looks fresh from his shower.

“You didn’t let Dad see you all dressed up,” she says

“I cut out before he came home. So, you ready?”

“Ready to phone and cancel.”

His differently colored eyes search her face.

“I didn’t mean that,” she says.

Scott ignores the lie. They both fall silent, pretend to watch people pass. At the last minute, before he left Riverdale to meet her, he had a hard time convincing his sister to keep the dinner date. She wouldn’t tell him why. Now her anxiety’s become contagious. After he got the phone call from Jack a week ago, he immediately told Becky about it. And just as Jack had done, she made Scott promise to keep the call a secret from their father—and not so much as mention Sarah’s ex-husband during their visit. Then she explained why in graphic detail. Her reason didn’t come as much of a surprise. Deep down Scott always knew. But he still loves his dad.

“You look really good,” he says, proud to have such a lovely sister.

“Don’t we both.” Becky curls a finger around his belt loop, gives it a tug. “We’re like a pair of orphans wanting to get adopted.” She rarely wears a dress that could be called modest. Before she trekked uptown, she changed outfits at the massage studio where she services mostly older men in need of full release. Her simple green shift flutters in the breeze. She feels short in the new sandals that replace her usual clogs. To help keep cool, she wears her thick auburn hair in a loose chignon.

“What do you think?” She opens her leather sling bag, displays an expensive bottle of red wine. “The guy—that Jack. He told you brisket for dinner, didn’t he?” Becky’s never spoken to the man. Once she learned from Scott that their mother couldn’t—or wouldn’t—come to the phone, she insisted her brother make all the arrangements. “Here, you take it,” She hands him the wine bottle. “I have another in my bag. They’re fucking heavy.”

 “She might not be able to drink any,” he says.

“Oh, but I can.” Becky pinches his cheek, rosy from the heat. “And so can you, Mr. Underage.” Maybe there’ll be more upstairs. She’s in a mood to finish both bottles all by herself.

Latched open, left unattended, the wide lobby doors of the apartment building seem ready to embrace them. Becky waits for her brother to make the first step.

In the bedroom, hers and Jack’s, Sarah reapplies her makeup. Sometimes she thinks cosmetics are the glue that holds her together. At least the image she presents to the world. A sane enough person.

With lipstick poised midair, she examines the lines around her gray-blue eyes, the deeper crevices that hug her small nose, her mouth that salivates too much—a side effect of the Thorazine. She reaches for her prescription bottle, fights an impulse to take a second dose. Maybe a third? She’s had much higher amounts in hospital.

“Like candy,” she says. One of her favorite nurses, round as a beach ball, had joked about the drug that way.

Below fine hair, dyed chestnut and teased high, she still can see a beautiful, shapely girl. A girl who rode the subways with a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses held against her chest. She displayed the book’s cover to impress discerning riders. The young men among them more so. Handsome ones especially. That’s how she met…

“I should’ve just read the damned book,” she tells the empty room. It’s still a man’s space. Jack’s space. Spartan, unadorned. Much like a hospital room.

“I’ll make it pretty one day,” she says.

Her tired smile she repaints dark red. It’s an old, reliable brand of lipstick, one that’s harder to smudge. For a few seconds, the rich color lifts her spirits. And she thinks of another girl. Her Becky. One who is young—was younger still when Sarah last saw her. Fourteen? She counts backwards from 1970. The years blur. Hard to remember when she first refused to see the children. Their brief, anxious visits to the hospital had made their long absences, her sense of failure, intolerable. And then she seriously hurt herself again. Her committal became open-ended; time gouged a deep hole in her life.

Time. She glances at the clock. Fifteen minutes late and no call. “What I deserve,” she says, concerned they might not show. Worried they will. Her Scott, her baby. She can’t afford to think of him now. Say his name. He was so young when… Why did Jack have to arrange all this now? And why did she agree? Better to have waited longer, spend more time on the outside, gaining strength. “Do something,” she orders her reflection. “Useful distractions.” The best advice a shrink ever gave. Or was it some lazy orderly who didn’t want any trouble?

The pale-yellow blouse conforms to her bulging midriff. (She calls it her Thorazine tire.) She riffles through a drawer, decides on a loose red top that wouldn’t wrinkle if it were used as a door stop. The dark color makes her look thinner, less bloated. “Red to the rescue,” she says. Another coat of lipstick wouldn’t hurt either.

Reaching for her makeup, she wavers, rests a hand on the prescription bottle. Maybe one more dose for this special occasion. Like candy?

 “Things are looking good in there,” Jack says. His drooping face says otherwise. He was gone a while. Becky and Scott can’t tell if he’s talking about the dinner or Sarah, who’s yet to make an appearance. Both young guests are afraid to ask why.

His lumbering gait through the hallway has a hypnotic effect on Becky. The living room where she sits seems in flux. Must be the gaudy, boomerang motif sprinkled across the slipcovers, repeated on dusty drapes closed against the late sun. More likely it’s too much wine. And on an empty stomach. She studies her drained glass as if it were a crystal ball. That should be hint enough for this lumpy, grizzled man who could pass for her grandfather.

“No need for that, darling.” Jack winks as he pours from the bottle. “An old barkeep like me always knows when someone’s empty.”

She offers a frosty thank you.

Scott turns down a top-off, wishes his sister would slow down. With each glass she becomes more aloof, her face a luminous, blank shield. The chilly room grows quiet again. For reasons that have nothing to do with politeness, no one wants to talk about Sarah in her absence. Jack makes a show of resting his gouty foot on the hassock. “How’re you young folks spending the summer?”

“Right now I’m just hanging out,” Scott says. “Considering my options. Maybe college this year. Maybe the next, after I do some traveling.”

“Education is a wonderful thing.” Jack could say a lot more, but doesn’t want to sound critical. He can’t understand why kids today think they’ve got forever to make something of their lives. If he had half their opportunities—forget about it. “And what about you, darling?”

Becky wishes the old man would stop calling her that. “I’m a photographic artist.”

“Good for you. What do you take pictures of?”

“I focus on women’s issues. How they live, where they live. It’s complicated.”

Jack gets the message. “I’m sure it’s very interesting.” He never expected to be left alone with his guests for such a long stretch. At least not initially. He’s afraid to ask any more about them. The most innocent question could land him in a minefield. Better leave that to Sarah. She promised only a few minutes more to prepare, center herself. Meanwhile he’s dying in here. So what’s left to talk about—the weather?  Now the boy. This Scott. He seems okay. A nice kid. But the daughter. Jack’s certain she doesn’t like him, has judged him already. What does she think, he’s after the family fortune?

“So, you’re a bartender and a cab driver?” Scott says. A residual, adolescent squeak pierces his husky voice. When Jack first phoned the boy, he’d said with considerable pride that he owns his own taxi.

“Are you kidding me?” Jack says. “Two jobs’d kill me in a week. But I did run a tavern for many years. Owned the place in fact. Way up in Inwood it was. Had a partner and everything. A nice little neighborhood establishment on a tree-lined street.” It still hurts that he sold his share to pay off huge gambling debts. At least the loss cured him. Except for the occasional, friendly card game. He watches Becky make quick work of her wine. “Good times and bad,” he says, “a liquor license has more value than gold. People always can manage the price of a drink.”

“And driving a cab,” Becky says. “Is that better than gold as well?” She doubts it. Why are they having this tacky conversation about money? Sounds like the tired bull some of her massage clients throw to hide their embarrassment afterwards. If her reason for being here doesn’t show fast she’ll—

“Sorry I kept you.”

Less than a whisper, the small voice coming from the hallway engulfs her like a crashing wave. The undercurrent of memory tugs at her feet, keeps her seated. Paralyzed, she watches Scott and Jack rise. She’s unable to follow their gaze, hear them talk. There’s only that small voice, “Sorry I kept you.” The words keep repeating, but only in her head. Everyone’s turned her way. She has to react, but doesn’t know how. All week she refused to think about this moment, what she’d do. Say.

She grabs the arms of her chair and looks up. “Hi, Mom.”

It must be the wine again. She sees two women inhabiting one body. Sarah, young and beautiful. And Sarah as she is now—much changed, drawing closer, studying her daughter as if the girl were an accident victim.

Becky watches her mother retreat to the bulky sofa with that man, take hold of his knobby hand. But is it the right hand or one that will betray, lash out? And who’ll be responsible then? Who’ll be responsible? The question shames her, has obsessed her ever since Scott told her about Jack’s call, about the chance to reconnect with their mother, reclaim her in some way. But in what condition? For how long?

Some apparitions of the homeless women she’s photographed appear in the room. Another trick of the eye. Like her artwork. So much easier to deal with than her true subject. Her inspiration. The real and needful woman who stares at the floor, grows smaller, more visibly troubled by the moment. By her daughter’s rigid silence.

“How did you and Jack meet?” Becky hears herself say. At least it’s a start. She almost said, “Sorry I kept you.”

Sarah’s timid smile allows the room and everyone in it to breathe easier. The apparitions begin to fade. “Shopping,” she says. “I met Jack while I was food shopping for me and the other outpatients. There were five of us in all. I had extra privileges because I’d improved so much away from the hospital. Food shopping was one of them. The woman in charge of the place trusted me. It was her home, you see.”

That lazy, greedy woman. Always making chicken wings and ice cream for dinner. Bologna sandwiches for lunch. Rice Krispies and watery milk for breakfast. But by volunteering for “therapeutic activities”—such as cleaning out the bathrooms—Sarah gained much freedom, could take long walks in the neighborhood. She also won a small room of her own, a partition really, on the stifling top floor, instead of having to share.

No. That’s too much to think about. Not tonight.

“I met Jack while I was shopping,” she says again to stay on topic. She squeezes his hand, but her eyes don’t leave her children. So beautiful. Perfection. All grown up without her. Leary of words, she’d rather look without talking, without anyone speaking. And then she’d hold them in a tight circle, if they’d let her, if they really wanted it. She’d know right off. Just as she knew to give Becky distance, more time.

So much time lost.

Stop it!

“Your mother’s shopping cart broke down outside the supermarket,” Jack says. “One of the flimsy wheels, it was.” He can tell Sarah needs him to fill in, although the daughter doesn’t look happy about it, like he’s interfering or something.

“The thing keeled over and fell apart,” he tells Scott. “Like an old skeleton. And the food!”

“Then what happened—Mom?” Becky stumbles on the final word, hopes it wasn’t noticed.

“I probably looked like I fell apart too.”

The others smile only after Sarah does. With a shaky hand, she reaches for the water glass Jack has waiting for her. He meets her halfway with it. “That’s how I felt, anyway,” she says. “It was such a long walk back. Then Jack comes out of nowhere. He helps me collect the groceries, offers to take me home in his cab. I tell him I can’t afford it. And he tells me there’s no charge!”

No. That’s not what happened, how much the moment means to her. “He began to save my life.” She doesn’t want to sound melodramatic. It’s only, she’s so grateful. The children should know. There’s been no one she could tell before except Dr. Rosen.

“What was it Jack saved you from?” Scott says.

His legs still jitter when he’s anxious, Sarah notices. Like when he was little. “From boredom,” she says, her smile apologetic. She won’t hint about her misery at the residence, the long hospital nightmares before that. Her children don’t need to hear about shock treatments. Insulin therapy. She couldn’t bear to see pity in their eyes. Or rejection.

“After I drove your mother to her residence,” Jack says, “we sat in the cab and talked some more. Isn’t that right, darling?” He gestures like a music conductor, drawing her back into the conversation.

“We hit it off,” she says, her face flush.

How strange to say this to her children, like a teenager describing her first date. “We started seeing each other during my evening walks. Or when I was shopping and what have you.”

“Now you see?” Jack says. “That’s one nice thing about being an independent cabbie. I can set my own hours. I could never do that when I ran the tavern. Too many responsibilities.” He digs into a serving dish. It rests on a glass table that divides young from old. Mother from children. His years of tending bar have made him a peanut junky.

“And sometimes we’d meet for a quick dinner.” Sarah enjoyed those furtive evenings most. She wouldn’t have to eat chicken wings at the residence, could give her portion to another hungry outpatient. “It was heaven to sit in a restaurant among other people—healthy, normal people—and feel like one of them again.”

“Because you were one of them.” Jack pecks her rouged cheek. “Are one of them—of us.” He looks at Sarah’s children. Behind their tight smiles he sees uncertainty and worry. Especially that Becky. The things he could tell those kids about loneliness. About the need for a second chance, wanting to share what’s left of your life before it’s over. But he’ll leave that to Sarah. All in her own good time. She’ll need lots of it.

“Speaking of dinners,” he says, “I better go check on our meal while you three get caught up.”

He takes care to slide his gouty foot from the hassock, wiggles his heavy body off the sofa. Back in the kitchen all the pans are set on the lowest possible simmer. A mountain of white, sticky rice keeps warm in a crock pot. On the way, he eyes the round dinner table Sarah had fussed over. He won’t announce until everything’s ready. His darling should only have to sit and enjoy. Those kids ought to see her when it’s just every day, when she bustles around the place cracking jokes like nobody’s business. They’d know there’s nothing to worry about.

The living room grows silent in Jack’s absence. Sarah seems to shrink. Her finger tracks the boomerang pattern on the slipcover, still warm from Jack. Where to begin now that they’re alone? Her gaze shifts from Becky to Scott and back.

“Can I ask about you two?”

“Why don’t you talk more about yourself first?” Becky says. “I’d like to hear. So would Scott,” she adds, in case her own wish isn’t enough. Without Jack around she wants to know why her mother left the residence, how she’s coping.

Scott nods his agreement. In the fading sunlight, his green eye glows more jewel-like than the brown one. When he was a baby Sarah loved to gaze at them—in them—for hours as she played with him. Such an easygoing child. His smile, much rarer in the end, could take her breath away, helped give her strength. She couldn’t have coped for so long otherwise.

Now what was the question?

“You mean, how did I wind up here?” she says. “With Jack?”

Becky sits on the edge of her chair, her focus intense.

Sarah’s mesmerized by her daughter’s delicate features. Her first born. Her Beckala. It’s like looking at herself as she was twenty years ago. But stronger. Her grownup baby’s so much stronger. She’s nearly sure of it. Her guarded relief almost overwhelms. A cough rises from deep in her lungs. She’s dying for a cigarette but won’t light up. The children probably wouldn’t complain should it bother them. If she couldn’t have smoked all those years in hospital, and then in that wretched home, she wouldn’t have survived, medication or no.

“The residence,” she says. Start with a subject and build on it. That’s how to keep track of your thoughts. “It was decent enough. But I was getting well so fast outside a hospital setting. Like a flower starting to bloom.” She mimes opening petals, imagining an iris. That’s how she described her progress to Dr. Rosen. “I needed more sun. I mean, more freedom. Independence. And the city’s bureaucracy, it works so slowly. People get lost in it. Trapped in endless delays, stuck on long lists for work training and other…”

Other what? She saw a therapist once all her time at the residence. And that was to arrange for her medication. Only the drug kept coming. “I couldn’t wait anymore. I knew I was ready.” But too terrified to ask, knowing the home operator wanted all the beds kept full. It’s not exactly how she planned to explain her disappearance. At least she got the general approach right. It makes her sound strong and self-reliant, something her daughter especially needs to hear. Sarah could tell right off.

Meanwhile Becky sits so close to the edge of her chair she might fall off. Her arms rest on legs spread wide for support; her pale green dress forms a valley between them. “About your leaving the residence,” she says. “Was it entirely your idea?” She knows how easy it would be to manipulate a fragile, desperate woman. She’s heard enough stories from her homeless subjects.

“My idea?” Sarah says. “Oh, you mean Jack.” And she understands what her daughter wants to know. “He’s a good guy Becky. He’s not like… How some people can be.”

Her eyes search the room for another topic. “Look at the typewriter he bought me.” There’s relief in her voice. “It’s electrical. Top of the line.” The blue machine dominates a corner desk piled with her practice sheets. “Once I’m up to speed, I’m going to start office temping. Dr. Rosen thinks it would be important for me.” She tries to remember the right word. “A nice segue into a fuller, more independent life. And I’d like to help Jack with the expenses. Not that he cares. It’s something I choose to do.”

“This doctor you’re seeing,” Scott says. “Was he your therapist at the residence?”



“Elena Rosen. She was a refugee from the war you know.”

“Oh,” Scott says like it makes all the difference, has answered his question. “Can you still see her now that you’re here?”

“Dr. Rosen lives in the building. Up on the eighth floor.” Is the number important? “She’s semi-retired you see, and a friend of Jack’s. In a good neighbor sort of way. They’re very active in the building’s tenant organization. The Dynamic Duo they’re called.” Her eyes close when she smiles.

“It was Jack.” Her voice grows full again. She has to stop, take a deep breath. All the things he’s done for her. “He talked to the doctor about me. Explained my situation. What I needed. She took me on for next to nothing.” Is that doubt still clouding their beautiful faces? “Dr. Rosen does kind things like that. She doesn’t need to make money. And she’s very—what’s the term?—socially conscious. She even tries to help guys avoid the draft. She writes letters to the Board on their behalf. And for free!” Sarah’s seen them in the waiting room. Smart looking boys. None of them could she picture in a Vietnamese jungle. She’d like to know her son’s draft status, but she’s too afraid to ask.

A chemical buzz vibrates through her. The Thorazine surges, coursing through her blood on its own circadian schedule. Her ears feel like they’re filled with cotton. She needs more water, makes a quick grab for the glass so her trembling won’t show.

She misses the mark.

Becky reaches in, saves the glass from tipping. Their hands touch before she withdraws. Sarah drinks, her eyes enthralled by her daughter, whose face has opened to her for the first time, if only a little.

 “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.” Jack limps his way into the living room. He can’t wait anymore, has set the food out before it overcooks, loses flavor. Something’s happened while he was gone. He can tell. Maybe good? He watches his darling, looking for signs.

She has some trouble getting off the couch. Scott jumps up and helps. Her eyes disappear in a smile. It takes all her willpower to let go of his hand, to keep from hugging him fiercely. But she hasn’t earned it yet.

Becky stands, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She watches her mother maneuver the sharp edges of the cocktail table and draw nearer.

“Ready to go in?” Sarah asks.

Becky nods and takes a step back.

“No please, you two first. I’ll follow.”

Halfway down the hall Becky turns around to make sure her mother’s still there.