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Anna Riggs Duffy and her husband, George, live in New Orleans with their two very different identical twins. One day there is a tragic accident, and Anna can save only one of the boys. In their grief, George turns to another woman while Anna turns to the slot machines in the waterfront casinos. How will she win George back, and does...
Anna Riggs Duffy and her husband, George, live in New Orleans with their two very different identical twins. One day there is a tragic accident, and Anna can save only one of the boys. In their grief, George turns to another woman while Anna turns to the slot machines in the waterfront casinos. How will she win George back, and does she really want to, anyway? In Odds, Patty Friedmann explores the darker sides of humor, love, and family.
Author Biography: Patty Friedmann is the author of three previous books, including the novel Eleanor Rushing. She lives in New Orleans.
I wasn't an asthmatic or allergic or demanding child. I think maybe twice I told my mother that I needed a cat, but she felt my father had left her with enough as it was, and she wasn't going to go out and volunteer to take care of anything extra. I was three when my father blew out an aneurysm an hour before the topping-off ceremony of a building on Loyola Avenue. Maybe he wouldn't have survived either the fall or the insult to his brain, but even when I was older the subject never came up between my mother and me. I could step dreamily into the traffic on Canal Street, or press my hands and face up against the glass observation tower atop the Trade Mart, and she would become very pale and whisper, "No accidents, Anna, you better remember that; there are absolutely no accidents," and I would shrug and silently press forward, surviving.
She let me keep a cat when I was seventeen and she had decided I was almost ready to go. The cat showed up one morning, in the window next to the kitchen table that looked out onto the side gallery. He had no more than a three-inch ledge, but at the time he found me he was a rather lithe, busy cat, and he could balance there and wait patiently, not slip off, look longingly at my buttered muffins and café au lait, as if he would give up all the emerald lizards in the graveyard if he could just come in, please, and sit on the empty chair at the table and get ready to take my place.
I named him Ansel Adams. Ansel Adams did brilliant things with nothing more than black and white. The cat was, I realized much later, a type, a mostly black cat with white on his belly and splashes of white in arbitrary places, creating no symmetry, but making me look for balance through squinting eyes, an oriental screen sort of cat. After he came into the house and began to grow fat and lazy, I would lie on the floor and study him, curled up, trying to figure out where his patterns came from. "Do you think, Mama, that maybe in the womb there is just so much white to go around, and it spatters around from the walls, so if you could lay the kittens out in the right array, you'd see pictures, white on black?"
"If you are there imagining God with a paintbrush, lying with his back up against some cat's viscera, you're not as ready to leave as I think," she said. "Come here, Ansel Adams, you may be out of a job soon."
"You told me I should have imagination," I said, and she laughed.
Once I was finished with high school and my mother was letting me wait to begin my life, I spent my days at the library on St. Charles Avenue. The library was a mansion donated in memory of a son killed in World War II, and most weekday afternoons it was mine, the broad porches and stone steps, the separate garages the size of Mama's house, the man-made hillocks. I'd lie on a patch of grass, oak pollen forming a blanket under me, and read The Castle and The Voyage of the HMS Beagle and A Brief History of Time when I wasn't just watching. I stayed away from those dusty, jacketless books full of facts that were in the upstairs back stacks and avoided, too, the slick journals full of science that sat on the reading desk in the front room, the ones my mother went over to read page by page on Saturday mornings while I slept. My mother had never gotten past the fact that, by the time she was thirty-one, she was the widow of a construction worker, a woman who had no more schooling than it took to decapitate rats for three dollars an hour in the cytology lab at the medical school. I sensed it pleased her that my father's government check let me spend my days slipping out the side door of the library and into my dreams, happy to learn nothing more than that the idle rich have marvelous things to look at all day. She was planning on my becoming one of them.
I married George after a year, and Ansel Adams had his place secure in my mother's house. He grew a fine inguinal pouch that sported two fat, useless teats under his white belly, and lay around waiting for my mother to say something so he could ignore her. Because my mother said it was time, I became pregnant a respectable two months after my wedding, and George went downtown to work in a law firm in the same building where my father had plummeted to the ground fifteen years before. The corridors were narrow and needed paint, signs of respectability and dignity in New Orleans, and the sidewalk had been replaced at least twice since my father's death, but George didn't think about much more than going down to that building twelve hours a day so he could become a partner. I didn't know him particularly well, so his long days were fine: I could get by effortlessly, promising him nothing more than that I'd never tell anyone how my father had died. "It was no crime not to finish high school," I said to him once, and he said, "Well, in my family it was." Days, I sat around Mama's shotgun house and got as fat as Ansel Adams, and since I was not even nineteen years old, the doctor gave me vitamins and pushed his hand up inside me until I yelped in pain; it was not until my eighth month that he noticed I looked frightfully huge and pressed a stethoscope all over my belly for a few minutes and said distractedly, "No doubt about it, you're not big. They're big."
"Two of them," he said. "Are you ready for two of them?"
All George said was, "Don't have an ultrasound. I don't want weird pictures on the mantel."
Twins are supposed to come early, but the entire month passed without any sign that they were ready. I could have spent my days at my own house, two solid levels of stucco painted the color of crab fat, with a shell of a New Orleans raised basement and a queer L-shaped pool that wrapped around, side and back. It was a house that George had chosen because it was a half block off St. Charles Avenue. "It's unsightly," I had said, trying to sound as if I were joking, when I saw it the first time, marveling that anyone who had to put a fresh coat of paint on a house to sell it would choose such a color. "With the house in the way, you can't see anyone in the shallow end of the pool if you're in the deep end; what's the fun of that?"
"What counts is the address," George had said with the air of someone who's had seven more years of schooling and is entitled to a lot. "And you can put your mother in the basement." I'd shrugged, ashamed to be glad I was pregnant because soon I wouldn't have to let him touch me.
It was June, and I could have lain out by the pool; I could have floated and pivoted in the pool, weightless even with the water sac that held two babies inside me. I could have lain on a raft, navigating through the sharp right angle where the pool filled the back corner of our lot. But I spent the days instead at my mother's house, staring at Ansel Adams and half-listening to my mother saying good things about George. "Your father was intelligent, too, same as George," she said. "Probably you'll have two smart babies. They'll create monumental things; they just won't be dumb enough to go standing on top of them in the middle of June until the blood boils in their heads." My water broke on the anniversary of my father's death, June 21. I was in my mother's kitchen, and the last thing I saw when I left the house was Ansel Adams tiptoeing behind me, lapping up the liquid on the floor.
The first baby came, and the doctor said, "A boy, ten twenty-nine," and I lay still on the table, myopic and dazzled, feeling nothing except vague impulses from the waist down, and one minute later the nurse said, "Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus," and the doctor said, "Get her the fuck out of here." A curtain went up over me, extended across the point at my middle where sensation ended, and the nurse who had not been thrown out said, "Honey, you go to sleep now, you're all right, okay?" The funny thing was, I was in a room full of strangers, with George in his office knowing nothing and my mother somewhere in the hospital pale and full of misgivings from what I could tell when I last saw her, and going to sleep seemed like an excellent option. "What happened?" I remember whispering through the sort of sleep that only breaks if I open my eyes. I wakened later to hear my mother telling George, "The doctor says he thinks it's called mosaic scrambling, maybe there's an error in the DNA, a translocation error." I heard myself saying, "But what happened?" and my mother went on about chromosomal changes not being hereditary, as if she'd never heard me, and I dozed again.
We named the first one George Junior. George Senior did not want to name the second one because he was positive the child was going to die. The boy had no arms or legs to speak of, just stumps of varying lengths, none reaching as far as a knee or elbow joint, tubes of flesh over bone with smooth, rounded tips. But I loved touching him, learning his bones, his skin as warm and alive as his brother's. I named him Gregor, after Samsa and Mendel; it was almost an anagram of George, an extra r, one less e. "Gregor, he's the one who'll have imagination," I said to George Senior, who had both eyes on the television set. "Not even thinking up a new name for a child doesn't give him a lot of options. Poor little George." My husband wasn't hearing me. "Poor little Gregor," I said for my own benefit, lying supine in that hospital bed in that private room with no flowers, tears streaming down into my ears. No one knew what to do, congratulate or condole, and so no one did anything, not even the secretarial pool on the third level of George's firm. People's silence helped George, made him feel once again that he was right and I was wrong.
I cried over Gregor until he was old enough to notice, by which time he had so much spirit in him that I didn't need to do so much crying. I could change George Junior's diaper and he'd kick at me so hard that it would hurt; he was the sort of boy who would rock back onto his neck when he was two so that when his heels hit my arm simultaneously he'd leave two perfect round bruises side by side; I'd want to smack his leg, angrily, reflexively, disliking him for a fraction of a moment, and he'd smile with pleasure. Gregor, on the other hand, had no time for mischief, and of course no power for it, either. He was too busy concentrating on figuring out new ways to do things, rolling over through pure will, scooting on the carpet on his stubs until they bled, so my mother began crocheting him tiny heelless red socks with elastic to hold them around his limbs, and after a morning of clumping around the house he would have rings of purple bruises on the stumps and a look of triumph on his face that George Junior never had unless he was stealing something. I would he sure to tell anyone that they were identical twins.
"I told you prostheses were unnecessary," George Senior would say. "He gets by with what God gave him."
"I'm the Presbyterian here," I'd say back, but George didn't laugh or acquiesce.
Gregor gave up trying to get around when they were both two and George Junior began to run so fast that his head bumped into low tables; George Junior would let out a shrill of pain, look back at Gregor, who was full of simple amazement, and then George Junior would keep running until his feet carried his head straight into another obstacle. Gregor perfected the skill of sitting up straight in a stroller, and his body became thick and wise while his brother ran about, knees covered with skin like that of old reptiles, stitches in three places on his face from three separate trips to the hospital.
George Junior had as little sympathy for Gregor as he did for Ansel Adams, the only difference being that he could torment the cat by chasing him. George Junior would not fetch anything for Gregor. Not that Gregor asked, even from the earliest times in his life, when he had no words, only grunts, sounds that George Junior didn't need to make because he could grab whatever he pleased. George Junior treated his brother as if he were a beggar at an intersection where his car was stopped; he moved slowly past, not letting his eye be caught, not having to give, not having to feel anything, either.
It was a few weeks after their sixth birthday. My mother had been living with us for some time, hiding in her basement rooms in the evenings when her son-in-law was home, otherwise roaming the house freely. Ansel Adams had no such scruples, no fear of being told to go away. George took a liking to him when he moved in. "He was probably a terrific litigator in a previous life," he said about Ansel Adams. "This is one no-bullshit cat."
"They're all like that," my mother said, missing the point.
George had not touched one wall or tool since he bought the house, but he went out one day and bought all the makings for a pet door, and in three Saturdays of skinned knuckles and cursing with tears in his eyes, he installed a vertical swinging door at the head of the basement stairs so that Ansel Adams could choose where he wanted to spend his time. When Ansel Adams came into the bedroom at night and slept on the backs of George's knees, George would come to breakfast complaining in a way that let my mother know he felt he had won her cat away from her. Ansel Adams still had his claws, and George respected him for that.
I was getting ready to go outside by the swimming pool with the two boys that afternoon after day camp. It was one of those summer days when a black cloud would stretch all the way from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the Deep South awash in rot and sweat while everyone waited for the thunderstorms to break in a band moving west to east, cooling everything off for half an hour before the steam rose again a few hours before sunset. "It is going to absolutely storm," I said to George Junior.
"We have a lightening rod on the top of the house," George Junior said.
"Lightning, George, lightning," Gregor said. "Besides, lightning likes water better."
"You want to go out to the pool or not?" George Junior said.
"Well, not if I'm going to get killed," Gregor said, and my mother whispered to me, "You've done a good job." I gave her a blank look. "He doesn't want to get killed," she said.
"Oh, I am a terrific mother, all right," I said.
"You're kind of dead anyway," George Junior said. He looked like his father at that moment, and I tried to pretend he was Gregor so I wouldn't hate him.
"Mama!" Gregor said.
"Sorry," George Junior said, not meaning it. "But it's true," he whispered into my mother's ear loudly enough for me and Gregor to hear him. He took the basement steps two at a time, almost tipping Gregor out of my arms, leaving my mother there, squinting into the semidarkness after him.
Gregor had his own special pool raft, cumbersome and safe, an inner tube balanced on three-foot pontoons and rigged inside with straps that kept him upright in the water. Gregor could actually navigate well, though of course there was nothing propellant about his limbs, no cupped hand or flattened foot that would push water behind him so that he could move quickly. I would race him with my fists outstretched in front of me, using only my legs for moving forward, and it was a fair race, though George Junior would thrash alongside us, face in the water, arms churning, passing, hitting the far end of the pool, taking a breath, coming back and making a circle around us, crashing past us again, often beating both of us on his second pass. "Well, Mama's the rotten egg," Gregor would say, and George Junior would say, "You're the rotten egg, Gregor," then clamber up onto the side of the pool and belly flop in next to his brother, rocking the raft and sending water up into Gregor's nose.
I watched the clouds over the river for streaks of lightning, but none came, and the clouds didn't move toward us, so I let George Junior into the deep water that ran alongside the house, rigged Gregor up, launched him in the shallow portion at the back of the property. The water was surprisingly cold for the dead of summer, shocking each little pocket of fat unpleasantly as I lowered myself into the pool. The sunlight was stronger because it had fought through the cloud cover; not thinking, I put my hand up to shade my face, then lowered it, preferring the warmth.
Elbows up on the edge of the corner of the pool where it turned at the back of the yard, chin thrust upward, feet pedaling gently, protected now from the sun by blooming bougainvillea that hung out over the water and left the pool full of lipstick-pink petals each morning, I didn't notice George Junior going into the house for a snack, didn't notice him until he came out. Gregor was floating past me. "Mama, you know Ansel Adams is out here," Gregor called to me after a while.
Ansel Adams stood next to the pool, blinking in disbelief at his good fortune. He had not been outdoors in years, except in a carrying case. George Junior went over to crouch next to him, laid his ice pop on the slate surface; it puddled in the heat. He put his finger to his lips, reached for the cat, lifted him up under the pits of his front legs, most of Ansel Adams's bulk bumping against his knees as George Junior carried him toward the deep arm of the pool. "No!" I said. George Junior kept walking, his back arching with the effort of carrying a cat fully one-third his size. He was moving toward the deepest end, where Gregor had drifted. "I mean it, George," I said. George Junior sat down on the edge of the pool, lowered his feet into the water. Ansel Adams wriggled a little, showing dissatisfaction but not particularly wanting to escape. And then, cat and all, George Junior jumped into the pool.
It was all too much for Ansel Adams, who perhaps could have managed being gently lowered into the water, for all I know. The cat went under with George Junior, and while the boy bobbed up fine the first time, the cat came up fighting as if someone had shot him full of amphetamines. He flew into the air, flailing at George Junior, coming down onto Gregor's raft, catching his claws in the taut rubber and puncturing it. I tore through the water as if it gave as little resistance as a vacuum, reached into the fray, pulled back instinctively when Ansel Adams raked me with his teeth, grabbed for him again, and then he sunk his claws into me so deep that I wanted to let him drown. Both boys and I were in eight feet of water, and now all I could see were the identical faces of my sons, one with his hair dry and soft and almost white in the sun, the other with his hair dark with water, one with a look of pure terror on his face, the other with a look of mild annoyance as if I'd come along and ruined his perfectly good idea for amusing himself. I caught the cat around the middle, and he slipped through my hands, landing on top of George Junior, covering his face and scratching at his eyes in panic to get a hold. "Mama!" Gregor said. He was now snared in the straps of a heavy, sinking, tipping vessel, a craft we trusted as long as everything went all right. I tore at the straps, made no headway, began pushing him toward the shallow end; I would have to move him a full twenty yards and around a bend to get him moored at the steps. I screamed for my mother, my voice echoing in the empty summer neighborhood.
I looked back toward George Junior, and I couldn't see him or Ansel Adams anymore. I pushed Gregor to the steps. It was all I could do.
Excerpted from Odds by Patty Friedmann. Copyright © 2000 by Patty Friedmann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted November 30, 2000
ODDS is an amazing new book by a quirky New Orleans writer. The book centers around the life of Anna Riggs Duffy, and the after-effect of a choice that she is forced to make in the face of a tragic swimming pool accident. This book is a true rarity-- it will make you aware of the fact that we are all 'dealt a hand' in one way or another, and it sheds light on our struggles to survive the odds that life gives us.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.