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A novel of babies and friendship, mothers and fathers, and the havoc of procreation.
Brooke and Mary Rose are best friends. Brooke is the mother of a six-month-old. Mary Rose is pregnant. Brooke is married to Lyle, though, at times, she wonders why. Mary Rose would be married if Ward, the father of her child, weren't already. Ward and Brooke are cousins... A comedy of manners and biology, Karbo gives us a laugh-out-loud look at the wonders of pregnancy and motherhood. It is a ...
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A novel of babies and friendship, mothers and fathers, and the havoc of procreation.
Brooke and Mary Rose are best friends. Brooke is the mother of a six-month-old. Mary Rose is pregnant. Brooke is married to Lyle, though, at times, she wonders why. Mary Rose would be married if Ward, the father of her child, weren't already. Ward and Brooke are cousins... A comedy of manners and biology, Karbo gives us a laugh-out-loud look at the wonders of pregnancy and motherhood. It is a world where the women are fierce and strong and the men duck and cover; a world that is turned upside down when the expecting mother turns out a most unexpected child. Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me celebrates the courage and strength of women and the bonds that join them "in the motherhood."
I am a terrible mother. I love my daughter, love her so much I'm amazed I actually have to hold her in my arms, that she doesn't just stick to my side, my heart heavy as a black hole, dense with love, trying to suck her into it. I love her like this, then, minutes later, can't wait to get out of the house, leaving her behind. I'm told all mothers are like this, more or less, and are all racked with guilt because of it.
The week I found out about Mary Rose, my beloved Stella Marie was six months old. She had black stick-straight-up hair, blueberry eyes that would find their way eventually to a less exotic shade of hazel, an abiding affection for the decorative moldings of our seventy-year-old house.
She liked to gaze at the corners of windows and doors, reach out as if to grab them, then wag her hands excitedly, like a palsied lady trying to open a wide-mouth jar. Her basic look was one of consternation. She was not a silly baby, even though I'd been known to make her wear a bonnet. She is perfect. The world's cutest human. Really the world's cutest human.
And yet, one needs a break. All I wanted to do was go to the grocery store.
`I love Stella, I'm just not interested in changing her diapers,' said Lyle, when I asked if he might watch her for an hour. Made me feel as if I was asking for the keys to the car and ten bucks for gas.
`Interested in? We're not talking a PBS documentary on marsupials here, Lyle. She's your daughter.'
`Here's something I read that's kind of cool— did you know that newborn kangaroos find their way into the pouch completely unassisted by their mothers?'
`Don't do the changing-the-subject thing. Please?' I rolled the portable dishwasher as close to Stella's bedroom doorway as I could without disconnecting the nozzle from the kitchen sink. The Perfect Wonderment had been up seven times during the night, but still wasn't sleepy. The dishwasher was my secret weapon. The whir-whoosh whir-whoosh of the water sloshing around was better than any lullaby. I could hear Stella in her crib, doing one of her Stella monologues in which she seemed to fall back on a word that sounded a lot like intaglio.
`Are there even any dishes in there?' said Lyle. He stood in the kitchen frowning at the dishwasher, as if it were one of his computer problems, his collie eyes made slightly larger by his glasses. He'd lost weight since Stella came, mostly because dinner now was us standing in the middle of the kitchen, eating whatever straight from the refrigerator: cheese, peanut butter on celery, Nestlé chocolate-chip cookie dough straight from its yellow tube.
`If you don't want to help, don't criticize.'
`I'm not criticizing, I'm just saying. It's a waste of water.'
`If Stella sleeps, and I get to take a nap some time before the new year, then it's not a goddamned waste of water.'
`I thought we agreed we were going to lay off the profanity. You know, in front of Stella. And I do want to help. I said I wanted to help.'
`As long as it's something convenient, you're all for helping. If it's a gorgeous day and Stella needs a little air, you'll walk her around the block. That's your definition of helping. It's like when you're playing on the computer and you tell someone you have to get off and go baby-sit. Baby-sitting is what you do for kids that aren't your own. It's what you do when you're fifteen and want a chance to make a few bucks and see what there is to eat in someone else's kitchen. You don't baby-sit your own daughter.'
`Well ...' He pinched the end of his nose, something he always did when he wondered if he should say what he was thinking. `... guys do.'
`You know what it's like, what you do? And probably all men for that matter. It's like the difference between a deaf person signing as a means of communication and a lovely, well-intentioned hearing person signing as a show of solidarity.'
`You're starting to go off, Brooke.'
`I am not going off. Why do you say I'm going off whenever I'm trying to make a point.'
`Why don't you just go get the turkey?'
`Why don't you just go get the turkey.'
`I thought that's what this was all about. You wanted to get out of the house and you wanted me to baby-sit Stella, and I asked — just asked, so sue me — when you'd last changed her diaper.'
`So you could be sure you wouldn't have to change one. Look, you think I enjoy changing diapers?'
`Yeah, I do.'
Okay, he was right. I did tend to rhapsodize about the wonder of Stella's `projects.' Steam and cut a carrot into bite-sized bits and a mere twelve hours later there they are again, bright and square as ever, cradled in her diaper amid an aromatic little dollop of guacamole-ish doo. I don't expect the mailman to find this amazing, but I'd like to think that Stella's own father would take an interest. Is that asking too much? I already know the answer.
The dishwasher did the trick, as I knew it would, and I went out to buy the turkey. Donleavy's Market is beloved by every impractical person in a ten-square-mile radius. It sells huge, pale bars of French soap and bottles of olive off for every occasion. (Lyle and I used to like to joke that `Extra Extra Virgin' should be repunctuated to reflect modern sexual reality — Extra Extra: Virgin!)
When I pulled into the driveway behind the market, I saw the lavender Mowers and Rakers truck parked near the back fence. It was hard to miss. It's a civic institution. The sides were smartly painted with a Gauguin-inspired profusion of red passion flowers, pink hollyhocks, marigolds, iris, and cosmos, green vines creeping up the M of Mowers, the R of Rakers.
A few yards to the right of the truck, Mary Rose stood on the top rung of a twelve-foot ladder, pruning a fig tree that grew on the adjacent property. Her back was to me, her blond hair held up in a bun with a green pencil. She wore baggy plaid shorts and a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, even though it was forty degrees and raining. Mary Rose was six feet tall and lanky, with broad shoulders and large feet. She was my age, thirty-five, and was a teenager at a time when any woman over five-eight had a cruel nickname, always a variation on the theme of Amazon. As a result, Mary Rose slouched. She sang along with her Walkman, her pruners flashing around among the big, wet leaves, swaying along with the music. This was so Mary Rose. Not simply standing on the top rung of a ladder, but further pressing her luck by rocking back and forth.
To say Mary Rose was a gardener would be selling her short. Yard maintenance in our city was no luxury. In the spring, blackberry shoots grew eight inches a day and the conscientious mowed their lawns every seventy-two hours. Failure to routinely clip, prune, thin, and weed meant a yard reclaimed by forest, a house under attack by wild clematis and morning glory. In our city, it really was a jungle out there.
I admired Mary Rose, and Mary Rose's life. She was smart, resolute. She kept her own hours and got to work outside. I kept my own hours, too, but as a producer, I spent most of them trying to talk people into things they didn't want to do. I had to deal with Hollywood people, which had to be much worse than coping with housewives worried about the health of their delphiniums.
This is what I was thinking as I went into Donleavy's: how Mary Rose was a modern-day ... who was the goddess whose named started with an A, the one who was independent and sporty and said what she thought? I didn't bother with a shopping cart, I could carry what I needed.
Mary Rose wasn't like any other woman I knew. She never perched on the edge of the sofa with a pint of Ben & Jerry's, wondering why she didn't have a man, or if she was seeing someone why, in the end, he would prove to be wrong for her. She didn't worry that she spent too much time working, or not enough time working. She didn't fret about whether she should have an eye tuck, then worry that she was superficial for worrying about whether she should have an eye tuck. Was it Aphrodite?
I took a turkey from the display in the small meat department. A life-size scarecrow cutely pointed at the stack of birds. They were free-range or had never been frozen, or both. I didn't bother with the beautifully calligraphed fine print. I picked one up, cradled it in the crook of my arm. Eleven pounds eight ounces, about like Stella.
Aramaic? No, that was a dead language. Or an aftershave. Lyle would know the name of the goddess, except I was irritated with Lyle, was always irritated with Lyle these days, and would punish him by not asking him when I got home. What about cranberry sauce? Did Lyle like the kind with the berries or without? The kind that retains an imprint of the inside of the can when you slide it onto the dish, or not? Aramis? No that was the aftershave. Maybe I'd just skip the cranberry sauce altogether. Lyle didn't care about Thanksgiving one way or the other, so why was I even bothering? Lyle thought we should take advantage of the fact that Stella was still clueless, as he liked to put it, and go to our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant on Thanksgiving, where there was usually an hour and a half wait but would be empty on the holiday.
Outside, it was drizzling. I started to run, so Stella wouldn't get wet, then heard someone behind me yelling. `Miss, oh Miss!' I turned to see a police officer — blond brush-cut, forearms the size of my thighs — trotting up behind me. His gold nameplate said Beckett. `You haven't paid for that.'
`Paid for ... oh, oh! I thought ...' I looked down, expecting to see Stella in her little red fleece jacket and cap, but there was the turkey in my arms instead. The fleshy, nonfrozen breast stared blankly up at me. It seems I was also patting it in a reassuring manner. `I thought this was my baby! I mean, I mistook her ... it ...' I started to snort. Lyle calls it my grandmother laugh. `This is only the second time I've been out of the house without Stella, so naturally, it was just habit ... Stella is much prettier than ...' I couldn't stop laughing.
Beckett said he also had a six-month-old. We swapped war stories. He said his wife had inadvertently given him a black eye during a particularly hairy patch of labor.
I said, `Hate to break the news, but it wasn't inadvertent. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm sure your wife appreciates you very much. I'm sure you're one of those guys who makes "involved father" sound like God's truth instead of an oxymoron.'
Beckett gave a hardy PR laugh, the kind that displayed his molars to their best advantage, but he didn't take his eyes off me.
`Oh! The turkey. Let me just get my wallet. Do I pay you — or no, I just probably go get back in line ...' I pawed around inside my shoulderbag. No wallet. `Let me just ...' I moved the turkey to the crook of my left arm, so I could check my jeans pockets and the pockets of my coat. I have an informal banking system where I leave five-dollar bills in rarely visited pockets, for moments just like this. Two nickels and a penny. This was not good. This was starting to look like shoplifting. `I must have left my wallet at home.'
Beckett took the turkey from me and stuck it under his arm. You could tell he used to play football. A few shoppers in the parking lot dawdled over unlocking their cars, allowing them to stare. Beckett clapped me on the shoulder. `I'll let it go this time with a recommendation: Get more sleep.'
I had the presence of mind not to blurt out `Easy for you to say!' which is, I suppose, a testimony to my fundamental sanity. I kept quiet, felt my face get hot, then, as I watched him turn around and go back into Donleavy's, thought I might cry. Tired, that's all. Tired, and now turkeyless.
At that moment Mary Rose came over. `What was that all about?' She was pulling a waterproof anorak over her head. Around her waist she wore a tan leather holster, where she kept all her clippers and such. I told her what happened. She lit a cigarette, listened, blew smoke sideways out of her mouth. `Shake it off. I'm sure the cop sees stuff like this all the time. It's no big deal. Where is Stella, anyway?'
`Home with her father. He can't get enough of her, you know? I practically have to wrestle him to the ground to get her away from him, just so I can feed her. Joined at the hip. Fathers and daughters, you know how they are. From birth they're that way. Joined at the hip. Wait, did I already say that?'
I heard my voice go wobbly. Is this what motherhood had reduced me to? Weeping in the parking lot of Donleavy's, wiping my nose with the cuff of my sweater? I tried to remember who I was: a producer of independent films, a baker of berry pies, an occasional runner, the world's only adult lover of the knock-knock joke. A sometimes skier. A collector of funny ashtrays. The wife of Lyle. The mother of Stella. Brooke Stellamom.
Mary Rose considered me from beneath her bangs. Artemis. That's the goddess I was thinking of. The virgin goddess of the hunt. The no-time-for-nonsense goddess.
Mary Rose was not one of those women who believed housekeeping extended to tidying up conversations, filling in all the awkward moments with decorative remarks. `You and Lyle should come with me to the Barons' for Thanksgiving. I don't think Ward would mind my asking you.'
I said it sounded like fun! I said I'd ask Lyle and give her a call tomorrow. I hopped in the Volvo (pumpkin-colored, formerly owned by someone with a thing for incontinent cats and vanilla-scented air fresheners), buckled up, gave a goofy wave, and sped off, the Volvo fish-tailing as I hit a patch of soggy maple leaves. I have a peculiar habit. The more bizarre a situation is, the more I'm compelled to pretend it's as normal as can be.
Mary Rose and the Barons? Audra and Big Hank Baron were among Mary Rose's biggest clients. I was also related to them in some convoluted fashion which, I'm embarrassed to say, I never remember accurately. I think my grandfather, who had a stroke at the age of fifty-six and didn't speak for the next twenty years, is Audra Baron's uncle. Before the stroke, my mother had also been unsure exactly how the Barons were related to us, and after the stroke she was too shy to ask Poppo to scrawl, on his little blackboard, the answer to the question: how are we related to the woman with the hair who threw herself on your chest and wept? I forgot.
The Barons owned one of those West Hills mansions whose grounds boasted trees that were here when Lewis and Clark arrived. They had a foundation (the family, not the house, although obviously the house did too). They had hospital wings named after them. Why would Mary Rose be having Thanksgiving there? I don't think Ward would mind my asking you ... What was that about? Audra and Hank's son, Ward, was one of those good-looking men — shoulders, jaw, a serious nose that takes your breath away — whose best qualities are visible at one hundred paces. Women see him, meet him, and know this instantly. But they are waylaid by his giddy jokes (`What's the last thing that goes through a bug's mind before he hits the windshield? His butt!'), thinking, hoping, that a third-grade sense of humor is an indicator of wit and character.
I decided that Audra and Big Hank were probably out of town, and Ward was having one of his parties. I remember having heard that he was living at home while his houseboat, moored ten miles west of our city in an anchorage full of artists, filmmakers, and nuts with money, was being refurbished.
It turned out to be nothing like that at all.
The Barons lived high in the West Hills on a ridge of rudely verdant forest. The house itself was a local curiosity; built in the 1920s with money pilfered from the government by the owner of our region's largest shipyard, it was a three-story Mediterranean villa with raked concrete walls and a terracotta tile roof. From the front windows there was a view of three mountains, two rivers, and our lovely downtown.
The only other time I'd had Thanksgiving at the Barons' was during the filming of my first movie, Romeo's Dagger, ten years earlier, when Audra was infused with the extravagant feelings of connectedness that always go with making a movie, then dissipate the morning after the wrap party quicker than a throat full of helium sucked from a balloon. Since then, I had seen very little of them, although I occasionally ran into Audra around town.
When Mary Rose and I arrived a little after 4:00 on Thanksgiving Day, Audra gave Mary Rose, Stella, and me a big flapping-hand welcome, kissing the air beside our ears.
`Brooke, it's been too long. And there's that adorable baby. Are you sure Lyle doesn't have any Asian in him anywhere? Little Stella looks as exotic as a little Tatar. Maybe it's just that black hair. From what I remember of your mother's side of the family they're dishwater.' She swooped down on Stella and left an orange lipstick butterfly on her temple. Stella gave her that furrow-browed baby stare, the same one you see everyday on displeased senators on CNN. I thought I would pop with pride. No one has more dignity than a six-month-old.
Audra was impressively slim, with thick, highly managed auburn hair. She was one of a vanishing breed, a Lady of the House, who has never held a paying job but has worked herself silly putting food on the table every night for a passel of ingrates. Most people look at this kind of old-fashioned American woman with scorn; they should try getting a meal for five on the table every night for forty years. Audra was in her sixties now, and seemed even more frantic than I remembered. Frantic to do things right. Frantic to amuse. Frantic, of course, to look young. I don't think she understood that unless you could make yourself look twenty-four, the Herculean regimen and hocus-pocus involved in looking a mere ten years younger wasn't worth giving up the pleasures of tanning and the occasional Twinkie. Or maybe she did understand. She had a waist, which she liked to emphasize by wearing wide, colorful belts.
`Where is the Sensitive Photocopier Repairman anyway?' Audra made her blue eyes twinkle. I felt my jaw clench.
The Sensitive Photocopier Repairman was Lyle. Or what I used to call Lyle behind his back, when my love for him felt as sturdy as one of the bottom members of a human pyramid. It was cute then, cute and teasingly half accurate. Drunken tiffs, flirtations bordering on infidelity, my backing his new truck into a phone pole, anything was a match for our love. We'd met just after Audra brought me the rights to the story that eventually became Romeo's Dagger. My life was insane with possibility. My first feature and true love, all in the same month. That my new man was fastidious to the point of pathology mattered not. It was adorable. Then, as now, every morning he went to work in a bright white button-down broadcloth dress shirt and returned home after a day of messing around the insides of copiers with nary a smudge of toner or streak of grease anywhere on him. How the sensitive part got in there, I couldn't remember. But I didn't like Audra using it now; it wasn't her joke to make.
`Lyle had to host a plague,' I said. `He's one of the gamemasters on an on-line computer game and tonight they're having a plague. The idea was to keep people off the game over the holiday, so they thought if they had an epidemic, people would spend time with their families instead of subjecting their characters to festering pustules and dementia. But the gamemasters still have to work.'
`Well, I hope he feels better,' said Audra.
I cut a glance at Mary Rose, who looked uncharacteristically meek. I had never seen her in a dress; this one was burgundy rayon that had `special occasion' written all over it. She tucked her hair behind her ears with the tips of her fingers over and over. What she does when she's ready to tackle a big problem, like pulling out a hedge. This was not like her. This was not like her at all.
Somewhere around on the other side of the house, male voices could be heard, and a slapping sound, like someone beating out a wet carpet hung on the line.
`That game!' said Audra. `A Baron tradition. Every year the kids drink too much of their father's single malt and play basketball in the rain.'
The kids were Little Hank, age forty-two, Ward, thirty-nine, and Dicky, thirty-three. My cousins. I think.
If Mary Rose and I were other women, or still ourselves at a different time in our lives, we would have been out there with them: playing, pretending to play as a way of aligning ourselves with the good-times-having men (instead of the marshmallow yams-baking women), or standing under the eaves sipping imported beer. But I was happy to sit and hold Stella on my lap, and Mary Rose wanted to talk. We allowed Audra to park us in the study while she hustled back to the kitchen. The study was a grand, clammy room where the green marble fireplace gave off charm but no heat, and the heavy green velvet swag curtains hung like dried seaweed from their gold rods. The woodsy smell of the fire couldn't compete with lonely odor of dampness. It didn't seem as if anyone else was home. There was certainly no party.
`Brooke,' spluttered Mary Rose. `I have something to tell you. Ward and I. We're ... ack! ... I don't want to jinx it.' She put her big hands to her face.
`You're what. Not ... that?'
`Not what?' said Mary Rose.
`There's only one what that's that,' I said. I felt suddenly as if I was channeling Dr. Seuss.
`Yes,' she said.
`No!' I said.
I couldn't believe it. I couldn't wait to tell Lyle. Lyle once said Mary Rose was the last living Valkyrie. I enthusiastically agreed, then went and looked up Valkyrie in the dictionary. Mary Rose, with her own business, vacation time-share, financial portfolio. She even had a .25 Colt automatic slung in a tiny hammock behind her nightstand, which she'd learned to shoot for self-protection.
Mary Rose was too level-headed to fall for Ward. But this is how it is, isn't it? Simpering fools conquer men and nations, strong-headed women in seven-league boots, unused to being the love object, swoon and are lost.
Then I heard about it all. How they met (she was transplanting some perennials; he was bored and trying to find someone to play croquet with him). How Ward liked to chase Mary Rose around the fringes of the Baron property, tackling her and biting the insides of her elbows, the backs of her knees. How Ward composed love poems about Mary Rose's mastery of the sickly rhododendrons by the driveway that no one had ever coaxed into bloom.
The fire flickered exhaustedly in the green marble fireplace. Stella fingered my car keys, lost interest and dropped them on my foot, waved her hands up at the window frames, and babbled aisle aisle aisle. I nursed her on the right side. I nursed her on the left side. She slept. I heard how Ward invited Mary Rose to the set to watch him direct a commercial for flavored seltzer — Ward was a director of high-profile commercials that garnered fancy prizes — then, during a break, locked them in the greenroom, where they made love on the linoleum. How he sent Mary Rose not flowers, but slim books whose sole purpose in life was to charm. How he looked her in the eyes when she spoke, instead of around the room or at the spot on the wall just behind her head. How he made her laugh.
`What did the hurricane say to the palm tree? Hold on to your nuts, this is going to be one hell of a blow job.' Mary Rose slapped her thighs, wept with delight.
`In the poem about the rhododendron?' She knuckled the tears out of her eyes with no regard for the hyper-sensitive skin just beneath. She was in love. `He compared my way with shrubs with how I can mend an empty heart.'
`Shouldn't it be fill an empty heart? Or mend a broken heart?' I bounced Stella, even though she was mewing in a way that said, `Cut it out or I'll shriek.'
`It doesn't matter.'
I just looked at her. I wanted to say, Mary Rose, it will matter. It will!
This wasn't entirely true. It will matter, until you have a child, then it won't matter again. Look at me. I have eyes for no one but Stella. I am moved to tears by the thought of Stella's feet, those rosy toes as round as marbles, the soles of her feet like the faces of two little eyeless old men. One time I put her entire foot in my mouth, just to see what it was like. The foot tasted like Stella smelled: Downey, Desitin, and clean baby. I was planning for a day in the future when she would be an eye-rolling teen and accuse me of sticking my foot in my mouth and I would say, `No, but I stuck your foot in my mouth — when you were about six months old!' Dumb, dumb, dumb beyond belief. But it's one of the wonders and powers of motherhood: It pleases me, so who cares?
`It's ready!' cried Audra, rushing from the kitchen with mincing steps, the kind meant to represent hurry. `Mary Rose, honey, I hope you can stomach my parsnip and clam stuffing. I've had some people complain that the parsnip is too rooty and the clam is too gooey, but I think they complement each other perfectly. Just like you and Ward.'
I followed Mary Rose into the dining room. To the back of her head I said, `Rooty and Gooey sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.' Maybe I am not simply a terrible mother; I may also be a terrible friend.
Mary Rose ignored me, sat where Audra told her to. The walls in the vast dining room and breakfast room were painted with gold leaf that had blistered and buckled in the dampness.
Suddenly, hubbub! Or rather hubbub, Baron style. Little Hank, Ward, and Dicky rolled in, beating their sleeves to warm up, stamping their feet, as if they'd just come in from a dogsled race in a blizzard instead of basketball in the driveway. They behaved like an overzealous amateur theater group given the improvisation hectic! causing Audra to rush back into the kitchen to find a corkscrew. One was found. Much to-do about the wine, opening it and pouring it.
`Where's the GD corkscrew?' said Little Hank. `Dad, did you leave the GD corkscrew on the boat?' Little Hank, in a kelly-green polo shirt and madras slacks, always looked like he'd been beamed up straight from a fraternity kegger, circa 1964.
I got the feeling Little Hank was trying to change the subject, something they'd been talking about before being called in to dinner. Or maybe I was simply projecting, based on what I know about Dicky: Romeo's Dagger was the high point of his life, The Big Game meets The One That Got Away, and was a topic he could flog to death. Dicky dropped into his chair. He was wearing a huge blue plaid flannel shirt, exercise pants with stripes up the side. Unlike the other Barons, who were of medium height and build, Dicky was tall and curiously wide. He had hips. Next to his brothers and parents, he looked as if he was gestated next to a nuclear power plant. Chernobyl Dicky, I thought, everything about him big and pink.
`Nowadays a simple life crisis isn't even good enough,' he was saying. He fiddled with the silverware, hit the prongs of the salad fork with one finger and sent it flying into the middle of the table. `You've also got to be training for the Olympics. Your life has to have a hook, is what I'm saying. The crisis itself isn't even good enough anymore. Do you hear what I'm saying? Who was that little girl in Texas who got stuck in the well and had to have that guy with no collarbone rescue her? That story would never have been made today. Not even for TV.'
`Have another drink, Dick,' said Ward, winking at Little Hank. Little Hank winked back too enthusiastically, grateful to be in on one of Ward's jokes. I sighed. Other people's family dynamics.
Audra brought in a high chair from another room. I assumed it had belonged to her boys, even though it looked too new, with a special nontoxic glaze and padded with a seat cover trimmed with a yellow ruffle. Once Stella was tucked into the chair, she popped a crinkly red thumb into her mouth. When she was unsure of her surroundings she never cried, just became as uninteresting as possible. Maybe she would grow up to be a spy.
Ward pretended to sit in the air right next to Mary Rose, then scooted her over with his hips so he could share the chair with her. `Not enough chairs, Ma. Guess I'll have to share with Mary Rose.' He wrapped his arms around her arms, laid a photogenic cheekbone on her shoulder. Ward also has one of those forever-boyish forelocks around which decades-long Hollywood careers have been built. What is it about a man with good hair?
Big Hank stood at the head of the table, methodically carving the turkey into disks with an electric carving knife. He hummed like a bored dentist. There was something with the turkey. It was white and shiny. All I could think of was a burn victim. Of course. Roasted without its skin. Audra's devotion to low fat extended even to the calorie-fest of the year. Around the table, bowls were passed: steamed carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, whole-wheat rolls as heavy as billiard balls.
Only in sit-coms do women usually make quips and asides about the god-awful cooking of their hostess. Mostly, we smile and offer compliments; the worse the meal, the more effusive the compliments. I watched Mary Rose take a dry oval of charred bird and try to disguise it with two ladles of gravy, which turned out to be steamed and whipped rutabagas.
`Yum! This is a real taste treat!' said Mary Rose. She put the fork in her mouth, then took it out with the food still on it. `Mrs. Baron, meant to tell you, before I leave tonight let me take in the calla lilies for you. It's getting a little nippy out there.'
`I'll nippy you,' said Ward, walking his fingers up Mary Rose's side in the direction of her breasts.
`Ward.' Mary Rose squirmed, delirious as a fourteen-year-old on her first date.
`Ward! Stop it some more, stop it some more,' said Ward in a girly falsetto.
`For one thing,' continued Dicky, louder, `everyone wants murder. They prefer multiple murder. What was so good about Romeo's Dagger — and it was good Brooke, don't ever forget what a fine job you did there, do you hear what I'm saying? — is that it had meaning. It was about love and courage. It was about more than how twisted people are. Although twisted is what sells. Twisted is money in the bank.'
`Audra, please, call me Audra,' said Audra to Mary Rose. `I suspect you're right about the calla lilies, and while we're on the subject, I don't think I've told you how much I love Paraiso Mexicano. It's absolutely inspired. I've had enough azaleas and rhodies to last me a lifetime. I adore it, and as I recall, not everyone agreed with me.'
`As I recall, Ma, no one agreed with you,' said Little Hank.
`Mary Rose did. She's the only truly creative landscaper in this entire city,' said Audra.
Paraiso Mexicano was Audra's name for the subtropical garden Mary Rose had planted behind the four-car garage. Other gardeners had told Audra what Mary Rose should have: `Mrs. Baron, you cannot, I repeat, cannot grow bougainvillea in this climate.'
But where there was money — not to mention the beloved's mother — there was always someone to say, `If you want the impossible, I'll try to give it to you.' Mary Rose built a trellis for the Bougainvillea sanderiana against the south side of the garage, dropped some hibiscus and salmon-colored impatiens in the ground, and told Audra to keep her palms and calla lilies in pots, which could then be transferred to the sunroom in the winter.
`It was all your idea, Audra.'
`But you talked me out of the banana tree. That showed determination and vision. Not every landscaper has determination and vision.'
`I was just following your lead,' said Mary Rose. She was anxious, I think, to be both agreeable while at the same time disavowing responsibility for the collection of exotic plants, some shipped from nurseries in Phoenix, that would no doubt be black and limp with rot come spring.
`You're not eating,' said Audra. `Have you been morning sick?'
You know that silence.
Suddenly, the weather, which no one had noticed for hours, seemed to be inside the room. The applause of rain against the Italian-tile roof. The candles sputtering in the heavy silver holders, victims of unseen drafts. Mary Rose slid a glance at Ward, who kept eating his carrots, sliding them between half-open lips as if he was feeding a parking meter. She said nothing.
I thought I didn't hear this right. I busied myself trying to feed Stella mashed potatoes.
`You're right, Dick,' said Ward. `The fact-based movie is in decline. Romeo's Dagger was great. What did that one review call it? "Shapely and ironic"?'
`That's what I want on my tombstone,' I said.
`What was the last good true story you saw? Dad? What about you?'
Big Hank looked at Ward over his glasses as if he were mad. `The last time I was in a theater they still had ushers.'
`This is ridiculous,' said Audra. `I know you young people talk about everything. For God's sake, look what they advertise on television these days. So let's not stand on ceremony. Yes, Mary Rose, Ward told us the news. And we are thrilled, absolutely thrilled. This is ridiculous. I think we should be honest. I'm beyond thrilled. I thought I was never going to have any grandchildren. And since we're being honest, I might as well say it. Two healthy kids like you and Ward. I'm not racist. You know that about me. But with all those poor African-American girls having a dozen children or more, why, we have to hold up our end, don't we? Us poor old middle-class white people?'
`Speaking of which, who is someone who's never been mugged?'
`Ward, quit trying to change the subject,' said Audra. `But there's one thing. And I hope you hear me on this, Mary Rose. I know you're kind of the earthy type, and will probably be into all that modern-day homeopathic nonsense, but please, please, I beg of you. I've heard of women saving their placentas — good God, how far we've come! Talking about placentas at the dinner table —'
`You' re the only one talking about them,' Ward said into his Brussels sprouts. `And, yes, I would like to change the subject.'
`You little devil,' said Little Hank, pitching a roll across the table.
`Don't interrupt — my point is that I do not, I repeat, do not, want you saving the placenta to fertilize the roses. I've heard of that happening. I will absolutely not have your placenta decomposing, or whatever it does, under my "Billy Graham" or "Melodie Parfumee". Mrs. Eldon's daughter-in-law froze her placenta, then when it was time to use it to plant under a tree or something, it wouldn't come out of the Tupperware —'
`Mother! You've made your point!'
`And she had to microwave it. Ward, I'm just trying to show you I'm modern, and that I support you.'
`We understand, Mrs. Baron,' said Mary Rose, tucking her hair behind her ears.
`Please, call me Audra!'
Mary Rose looked at Ward, who was busily smearing whipped rutabaga on a pile of curling meat. He smiled a weak, closed-mouth smile, gave his shoulders a little shrug. `The answer is: a liberal. To the question, Who is someone who's never been mugged?'
Mary Rose cleared her throat. `I know you're family and have every right to know, Audra, but we had originally planned on keeping it to ourselves. Until we've had time to adjust.'
Audra giggled, clapped her hands together under her chin. This was easily the most amusing thing she'd heard in ages. `Mary Rose, you are so adorable. There's no adjusting. Don't you know that? I still look at these boys and say to myself, "I can't believe you came out of me."'