WHEN MY SISTER FAWN told me she’d decided to adopt a little girl, I was skeptical. The girl’s name was Sam, and she lived in a group home run by — according to Fawn — gang members, illiterates, and pervs. Fawn had a master’s in social work and had been working with lost youth for years. She felt it was time she brought one into her home, gave her a shot at a normal life. Plus Fawn had been bent on having a kid by the time she was thirty. She was now thirty-four, and I figure she figured adopting a five-year-old would retroactively accomplish her goal.
Fawn was single and sober, but she had a past, and the only kid they’ll remand to someone with a past is a kid with a past — the one with bizarre scars and nightmares, the one no one else wants. Both Sam’s folks were in the slammer.
“The mom might be out on parole,” Fawn said. “No one’s heard from her.” She exhaled into the receiver. There was no point in nagging her to stop smoking since she quit almost as often as she lit up. “It’d be just my luck: I paint her room, and then the mom shows up and wants her back.”
When Fawn called, I was in the middle of playing the board game Sorry! with Stuart, my on-again-off-again of seven years. I suggested she get a dog instead: “One of those big, lazy hounds you can use as an ottoman. Maybe a Saint Bernard with a terminal disease?”
“You’re not listening to me. I’m doing this. The paperwork’s underway.”
“So what’d they do to this kid?” I asked.
“God, you name it.”
I named some things.
“Come on, this is a real little girl you’re talking about.”
“I’m serious,” I said, and I was. I wanted to know what Fawn would have on her hands.
“Listen, I put you down as a reference. If they call, your last name’s Bennigan. Just tell them I’m fabulous.”
After we’d hung up, Stuart said he thought you had to be married, financially sound, and not on antipsychotic meds in order to adopt. He shook his head, wearing that same hopeless look he got when Ross Perot lost an election. “It’s a free-for-all out there,” he said. Stuart and Fawn didn’t get along. He felt she was blindingly self-absorbed — a trait he disliked above all others — and she accused him of having the hots for her, to which he’d counter, “Case in point.” And she’d say, “So, you’re a lawyer now. How nice for you.”
What Fawn didn’t know was that Stuart had kept her out of jail some years earlier: She’d gotten mixed up with a married restaurateur three inches shorter than her, and the two had gone on a weeklong coke binge during which Fawn withdrew most of our mother’s savings — eight thousand dollars — from atms. It wasn’t until Stuart reasoned with my mother that she decided not to involve the law. My mother respected Stuart, and he was the last man any of us expected to speak in Fawn’s defense. Only I knew about his brother, who’d once signed for a ups package with a heroin needle sticking out of his arm.
That March we’d celebrated Fawn’s third year drug-free (sparkling cider, flourless cake), but we all had our doubts that she had come clean completely. She wasn’t the type to tough things out on grit alone. One year, after she’d had an abortion, she’d spent six months converting to Catholicism so she could cleanse her soul, but when she finally made it into the confession booth, the priest told her she’d been through enough and should treat herself to an ice cream. “A fucking ice cream,” she said to me. “Do you have any idea what I went through for that? I had to talk to nuns about my sex life.”
A FEW WEEKS LATER Fawn brought Sam home to live with her as a foster child while the adoption people reviewed her file. I drove up from San Diego to meet Sam and talk sense into Fawn. She — or, I guess, they — lived in one of those smog banks east of LA where guys grow television-detective mustaches and moms push shopping carts across the parking lots like they don’t care if they ever make it to their cars. Fawn had moved there after trying her hand at acting and modeling in LA. She got bit parts, enough to string her along, but in the end her agent told her her torso was too long: “I can only get work for half of you at a time.”
Through the screen door, Fawn asked if I’d brought a toy.
I hadn’t. I asked the girl, who was nuzzling under Fawn’s arm, if she’d accept a check.
She nuzzled in closer. “Cash is better.”
They were both wearing bandanna halter tops and skorts. Fawn had warned me of the freaky resemblance, but holy nuts if they couldn’t have passed for mother and daughter, with their slitty blue eyes and elongated torsos, curls like pencil shavings around their foreheads. Fawn wasn’t so sure they weren’t: as it happened, Sam had been born the same month and year Fawn’s baby would’ve been born, had she been born, and Fawn theorized that her aborted child had been reincarnated as Sam.
We slid a batch of brownies into the oven and went out back so they could show me their garden: a square of churned earth. They giggled as they tried to remember what seeds they’d planted. If I knew Fawn, it would all die before they found out, but I acted interested. Already Sam was calling Fawn “Mom,” which made me feel like we were on a movie set. Why didn’t I call her “Mom” while we were at it? Why didn’t we take turns hiding in the pantry, playing Anne Frank and the Gestapo? (Which we did end up doing later, so perhaps that’s not the best example.)
A guy called through the fence, “Hey, Fawn.” He was sitting in a baby pool in the next yard, making a face like he was receiving a massage. He looked nineteen — twenty, tops. Fawn had obviously slept with him.
“Hey, Joe,” Fawn said.
Little Sam, mimicking Fawn, jutted out a hip and said, “Hey, Joe.”
Joe said, “Hey, Sneaks.”
That night, after their baths, Fawn and Sam came into the living room in lab coats with their hair wound in pink towels. I’d just hung up with Stuart. Fawn undid the clasps on a briefcase, which converted into a display for the skin-care products she sold on the side. Sam pasted a strip of transparent tape across my nose, walking it down with her fingertips. When Fawn gave her the go-ahead, Sam tore the strip off my face.
“Hey,” I said, “that really hurt.”
They examined the strip under a powerful cosmetic lamp. Fawn asked, “When’s the last time you exfoliated? Your pores look totally Third World.” I could see Sam thought so too. She gazed at the sullied adhesive as though it were a window into my past, the years Fawn and I had roomed together in LA. Guys would dart across three lanes of traffic to chat up Fawn, pretending to have seen her in a magazine or a movie, glancing at me as if I might shine their shoes. I’d dealt with this all my life, though I was no hunchback myself; when I didn’t think about the lisp, it went away altogether. Fawn would shrug off their advances. “What am I going to do,” she’d say, “fuck everyone?”
After she got Sam tucked in and off the phone (who does a five-year-old call at midnight?), we made daiquiris and sat down to talk. “At your age you can’t just throw in the towel,” she said, continuing her sales pitch. “You’ve got to be on top of this shit. I have a C-booster serum that will make you look ten years younger. . . . Well, five.”
I asked if she was sure she was ready for this. This meaning Sam.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she said.
“I’m just saying, better you didn’t take her in at all than wait a year or two and give her back. Then she’s really screwed.”
“I understand that, thanks.”
Whenever I pushed, Fawn resisted my advice, regarding me as the resident know-it-all, the self-righteous windbag. So I backed off. “She hasn’t had some of the advantages we had,” I said. Fawn’s face softened, and we burst out laughing.
She told me then she was tired of being so self-absorbed. “It gets so boring: me, me, me, me, me. It’s a disease; it really is.” She combed her hair forward, checking the condition of her ends. “I mean, don’t you ever think there’s something else?”
“Something besides . . . you?”
She pushed her hair aside and stared at me. “You think I’m using her.”
“Isn’t that motherhood? I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted to be born.”
She told me she’d never felt this way before. “It feels so right. I love that feeling when she’s at school.”
When I looked up, I thought I saw the bedroom door close, but I’d been drinking, and it was late, and Fawn never lived anywhere where the doors worked right.
MY THERAPISTS ALL AGREED I was a textbook compartmentalizer: I coped with people and problems in my life by keeping each in a separate box. This strategy struck me as clever and sound. I didn’t grasp right away that they were describing a disorder. I was skeptical of mental-health professionals in general, having worked for years in human resources, attending retreats where my colleagues and I debated the most efficient way to gather pine cones. But OK. I paid these people (except for the one appointed by the court), and they seldom agreed on anything. So I thought, This one I should look at. I decided to start writing letters to myself — get the compartments talking to one another:
Dear Gilda [I’m named after my grandmother, a name and person hated by me],
I hope you don’t find it presumptuous, my writing to you. In the time I have known you, you have made some difficult choices, and though you often choose poorly, you do so with fervor, gusto, and a third word I can’t think of right now. You have your moments. Only last week a salesgirl failed to ring up a hat you wished to purchase. You could’ve walked off with it. The hat was yours for the taking. Instead you pointed out the error, and only when the smug whore got smugger did you stroll with the item. This hat, by the way, does not look good on you. Stop wearing it. As Grams used to say, “All things are not available to all people.” True, she often said this after having cut a pie into too few pieces, but I wish today to reimpart this knowledge to you, from you. Your sister suffers, as we all do. Remember this. Be decent when you can.
THE TROUBLE WITH SAM started with an ear infection. The doctor prescribed medicated drops, but when Fawn got Sam into the bathroom with the dropper, she would have none of it. I don’t know any children myself to compare her to, but Sam seemed to me inordinately large for a five-year-old. So when the two of them went at it — wrestling over the sink — my sister went down, toppling into the tub on her keister, elbow jogging the faucet as she went. Water drummed her face while Sam hovered over her, cold and demonic. “And stay the fuck off me, you slut-fuck,” she said.
“That’s just the part I’ll repeat,” Fawn whispered to me over the phone. “You’ve never heard the language comes out of that kid’s mouth.”
I couldn’t tell if she was furious or crying. “Where are you?”
“I’m under the kitchen table till I can figure where the little bitch went to.”
I suggested she find the girl and sedate her, but Fawn refused. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about crushing Valium in her fish sticks, but she’s not mine yet. They can still take her away, you know, whether this stuff’s my fault or not, because no one cares whose fault it is.”
“Whose fault what is?”
“Shit just happens, ok? You’re not a mom; you don’t know. But if you’re the one holding the bag when the shit comes down, you’re standing in the rain with a fistful of flowers.”
What shit had to do with the flowers, I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t like the way she sounded. That weekend I drove up. As I got out of my car, a little girl stopped me and asked if Sam could come out and play. The girl had frizzy red hair and a rash of orange freckles that made her look filthy instead of cute. She was holding a tennis ball frothed over with dog slobber. She said, “Sam wanted to French-kiss me. Then she put her tongue in my ear and tried to hump me.”
When I went inside, Sam came out of the dining room holding a brush dripping bright green paint. It dashed down her knee onto the new beige carpet. “Hi, Aunt Gilda. Mom’s nursing a hangover, and I’m painting.”
Fawn came up behind her holding a ceramic cupid with bright green lips.
“There’s a girl out there looking for Sam,” I said.
The two exchanged a look. My sister said, “Red hair? Freckles?” Then to Sam, “Hon, get me the phone. I’ll call her mom.”
While Sam was out of the room, Fawn explained that the girl was a lesbian and unable to keep her hands to herself. “She’s not supposed to come around here. She got caught making out with Dougie down the street.”
“I thought you said she was gay.”
“So she’s bi.”
“Isn’t everyone bi when they’re five?”
“Whatever. She’s bad news. Let me clean up, and we’ll talk.” She started toward the bedroom. I followed, though it was always pain and agony, what went on in there — Fawn slithering around on the sheets, telling me things I wouldn’t tell a gynecologist. “Stop me if this gets too graphic,” she’d say. These infatuations, they never lasted. They were silly, narcissistic games disguised as mutual admiration. Always they ended with hate mail or the guy doing doughnuts in his Camaro in Fawn’s front yard.
I stood looking at the poster over her bed, which depicted Adam’s hand reaching for his Maker’s. It was called The Creation of Man. Only my sister would hang this over her bed with no sarcasm intended. I want to say I was beyond all of this, unaffected by Fawn’s parade of men. But I looked at that poster and that bed — the way Fawn lived, the way Fawn loved — and I wondered whether without her I would have seen things differently, seen men differently. I thought of the night Stuart had flown to Vegas for a bachelor party. We’d been dating several months, and it was our first weekend apart. He arranged to call at midnight, and I knew he would call at twelve on the dot. At ten till, the phone rang. I had a feeling it was Fawn, but I picked up anyway. “You won’t believe what happened,” she said. I could smell the candles burning through the line. I knew that if I let her go on, she would poison my thinking on Stuart — for an hour or a day; it didn’t matter.
That moment was my chance. How easy it seems to me now: tell her I was expecting a call and would talk to her in the morning. But I said nothing. Fawn played me an entire mixed tape made by her new soul mate, a high-school-softball coach who was battling charges of molesting his shortstop. In the morning there were several messages from Stuart on my voice-mail, each longer than the one before, until he said he guessed I’d turned in early. The tiny betrayals are worst, the ones that don’t cross an official line; those you live with alone.
Now Fawn reached across the bed and pulled down a novelty glass case that said, in case of emergency break glass, which she did with five strokes of the miniature ax. She withdrew the cigarette inside, shook off the glass shards, lit it, and took a long, narcotic-eyed hit. “So,” she said, “you remember the hottie from next door?”
“The guy from the baby pool?”
She smiled. All my life I’ve shriveled when Fawn gets that ravaged look that means love — someone laughably good-looking enamored of her and lying about something. Fawn sprawled out, reached for a pillow, and off she went: He thought she was a “golden goddess.” He had to wear looser pants now because his old ones got tight just thinking about her. He was open to the idea of their raising Sam together.
“And this would be after you get out of jail for statutory rape?” I said.
“First off, he’s twenty-one. Secondly, I’m a mother now, and I don’t intend to jeopardize that. Which reminds me. Don’t get too close to Sam while you’re here. They sent her home from kindergarten with body lice last week.”
“American children get body lice?”
“We washed her in special soap, so all the bugs should be dead or dying by now. But just in case, keep your distance.”
The next morning I opened my eyes to find Sam snuggled up on the futon beside me, her forehead pressed against mine. We were so close I could see in her eye the reflection of my eye reflecting her eye. She smelled like the crotch of a doll. I said, “What are you doing?”
She said, “What are you doing?”
I scooted back. She scooted too. I watched for any unseemly scurrying on her skin, lice preparing to jump. I said, “Where’s your mom?”
She said, “Where’s your mom?”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Really, stop it.”
“Really, stop it.”
On the drive home, I kept hearing that little girl’s voice echoing my words. The mountain air was warm and smelled like ash; a small town some miles east had burned to the ground that week. Mine was the only car for miles. Over Camp Pendleton a big-bellied military plane was flying in low off the ocean at such an angle that it appeared to be stuck, suspended in midair.
When I got home there was a letter waiting for me from “An Admirer.” Only when I saw the signature did I recognize the letter as mine. Not even the handwriting clued me in. Aside from its felicity and wit, I found the letter abounding in errors — particularly the part about the hat, which looked superb on me.
The eerie thing was that, as I read, the voice I heard in my head was not my own but Sam’s. My skin itched with imaginary lice, and I smelled her synthetic skin.
Then Mavis from the adoption service called and left a message. She was perturbed I hadn’t returned her previous call, or calls, and stressed the importance of my doing so. But something about her voice threw me. She sounded like someone you’d want to tell the truth to.
The next night Fawn called wanting to know why I would sabotage the one good thing in her life.
“I had an interview at child services this morning,” she said. “Everyone called them back. My bosses, my landlord. Only you didn’t. My own sister.”
“It slipped my mind. I’ll call her Monday, and all will be aces.”
She was quiet awhile. I heard adhesive tape. Then she said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t believe you.”
“Well, believe me.”
After we’d hung up, I sat down with a glass of wine and wrote myself back:
Thanks for writing. Your letter came as quite a surprise! I have just gotten off the phone with your sister, who’s (big shocker) got a you-know-what up her you-know-who hole. Why are you still wearing that hat? Stuart is out of town, and, as always, you miss him more than you expected to. Sometimes you miss him when you’re with him. What does that mean? The night before he left, you watched him sleeping. He was on his back, his hands behind his head and one leg propped up, a smile on his sleeping face, and you thought, as you had umpteen times before, that beside you was a man complete in himself, ultimately inaccessible to you. To love a man who’s whole, this is the loneliest thing.
My therapists were split on the letter writing, in part because I wouldn’t show them the letters. In my opinion, you’ve got to keep some kernel of privacy in this world, and if that means lying to your therapist, then it’s probably the healthiest thing you can do. My regular Friday guy worried that the letters, handled improperly, could trigger a mild split personality. He suggested, as an alternate exercise, that I transfer Fawn’s sexuality onto a large blue pillow in the corner of his office and share my feelings with it, tell it honestly how it affected my world and relationships.
I told him I didn’t want to talk to the pillow.
He steepled his hands in front of his mouth. “What about this: What if you were to transfer your passivity to the pillow and talk to the pillow about that? Or you could hug it.”
The pillow looked unclean to me. I told him I didn’t want to hug it.
“Sometimes that’s exactly the time to hug it.”
‘‘I’m not going to hug it,” I said.
By then I was writing myself once or twice a day. I wrote at my kitchen table on plain lined paper. It was nothing I looked forward to, but once I got going, I gushed. This was no diary or journal, let me be clear on that. There was a sender and a receiver, and only in body were we/they/me one and the same. I didn’t realize how much I’d come to depend on my correspondence until one Saturday Stuart came to pick me up for a party at his boss’s house. The mailman hadn’t come yet, and the idea of heading out and missing my letter put me on edge. I almost told Stuart to go on without me, but he was up for a raise, and I was well aware of the studies showing that males who appeared to be regularly copulating earned higher salaries. He needed to show up with a date.
For the life of him Stuart couldn’t drive at a constant speed. We surged and dipped in his rattling hatchback while he explained how the toilets of the future would analyze our urine and suggest changes to our diet. He could be a dazzling conversationalist. He knew everything about social studies and science; his favorite topic was computers taking over the world.
At the party, the boss’s wife cornered me. She’d heard from Stuart about Fawn’s recent trouble with Sam. Slurring her words, sloshing wine on her shoes, she confessed that she wanted to put her autistic daughter in a home. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s retarded. You try and do something nice? The answer is screaming.” All I could think was that the mailman was at my door now. Or now. Or now. After an hour I feigned illness, and Stuart drove me home, tucked me in, and left. I listened for his bumper to scrape backing out of the drive. Then I hopped out of bed and ran for the mail. One of my shorter and shallower letters had arrived that day, but it was no less enlightening. I got out all the old ones to reread them. Halfway through one of my favorites, I got a ticklish feeling and looked up to find Stuart standing in the doorway, holding a brown bag. He set the bag on the table. “Soup,” he said. “For your cold.”
He looked at the table scattered with letters. Perhaps recognizing the handwriting, he picked one up and read it. I let him. He read another. “These letters are from you,” he said.
I lowered my gaze.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked.
“A while now.”
He nodded, like he’d expected as much. “Who knows about this?”
“My therapists and me.”
“You know Fawn; she just knows things.”
He kept nodding, shuffling the letters around on the table as if he might find some magical arrangement where things didn’t look as bad. Then he pulled his hand back as if from a hot stove. “You know, Gild,” he said, ‘‘I’m here every day. Every day I see you and talk to you. Every day I ask you how you are, and I want to know, and you tell me nothing. And now this.” He flung one of the letters to the floor.
The impulse was there to tell some lame lie that would only have made things worse — but Stuart was the best person I knew, and though this made it hard to love him in a complicated way, I knew that was my problem. So I kept my impulse in check.
‘‘I’m sorry, Stuart. I’m a compartmentalizer. This is what we do.”
He was spinning his keys on his index finger in a way that filled me with panic. I wanted to rush him, say whatever he needed to hear to keep him from getting in his car, but I knew I had to let him go.
He half turned on his way to the door. “You know,” he said, “even this can go away, even us.”
In seven years, Stuart had never doubted us.
MAVIS FROM CHILD SERVICES called the next day. I stood over the answering machine and listened while she talked. She now sounded confused rather than annoyed. She wondered if she had the wrong number, and could whoever lived at this one return her call and let her know.
I’d called in sick and spent the day in my pj’s, eating my way through the kitchen, right down to the baker’s chocolate. Stuart didn’t call or come by. In that morning’s letter, I chastised myself for not calling Mavis back immediately. I wished Fawn had never put me down as a reference; until then, I’d never been in a position to alter her life in any substantial way.
When I’d first seen Fawn and Sam together, my immediate thought had been that if Fawn committed to this girl, she must not uncommit; she could not be one more disappointment in that child’s already-messed-up life. Then there was the ear-drop incident, and that morning with Sam lying across from me, repeating my every word — not at all childlike, but malicious. And Fawn, master of bad decision making, was to be the girl’s savior. What it came down to is: I was afraid of calling Mavis back — afraid of what I might say.
Probably out of guilt, I agreed to accompany Fawn and Sam to the county fair that weekend. We got our pictures taken in pioneer outfits with period furniture and jewelry. We ate cotton candy and watched horses shit while walking and wagging their tails, not even breaking stride, not a care in the world. The featured band that night had been big news in the sixties until a car wreck had half paralyzed the lead singer. Now they played venues like this, same old sixties tunes, the lead singer dragging his gimp leg around the stage like an extra instrument. Men in cutoff jean shorts bought Fawn beer after beer after beer. Sometime before the Ferris wheel’s generator died, a man on stilts — not, I think, an employee of the fair — turned to get an eyeful of Fawn and went down, hard.
I ate a corn dog and watched Fawn and Sam have caricatures done. They sat side by side in director’s chairs. Fawn looked to be buzzing, perhaps from more than just beer, but it was hard to tell; she always looked her best and brightest when she was using. Beside her, Sam mimicked her every gesture. I tried to remember whether Fawn and I had shared such a moment as girls, but we had not been close when we were young. Fawn was the darling towhead, all ringlets and bobby socks. I was the tomboy, big-boned and knobby-kneed. I abused Fawn a good deal — your average sibling ambushes and beatings — and when she’d start crying and run to tattle on me, I’d pull her into my lap and hug her and tell her that had been Bad Gilda, and Good Gilda was here now. Bad Gilda was gone. She’d say, “I hate Bad Gilda,” and wonder aloud why we didn’t just kill her. I told her Bad Gilda was hard to find.
I watched them in their chairs — Fawn drunk and maybe high but adorable nonetheless; Sam with teenage pregnancy written all over her — and I thought, Hell, maybe they’re the best thing for each other. It was hard to get a handle on anything at the fair, what with children being led around on leashes and scolded in the open air. Then Fawn turned to Sam and, with a licked finger, dabbed an eyelash off her cheek. Maybe it was the way Sam let her do it, gave her complete trust to my sister, but all my compartments were suddenly filled with the certainty that I’d missed out on something in life, and missed out good.
Soon after that I lost track of Fawn and Sam in the crowd, and when I caught sight of them again, Fawn and the operator of the Zipper were slipping into the maintenance tent. I went after them, but Sam barred my way. “You can’t go in there,” she said. “My mom’s humping someone.”
I tried to push Sam aside, but she grabbed at my dress and called me filthy names. I picked her up and carried her into the bathroom. My notion was to wash her mouth out with soap, but there was only the soft-soap dispenser, dispensing frothy little mounds. I decided to spank her instead. In one of the doorless stalls, I turned her over on my knee and pushed up her dress to find her derrière. Her legs, in pink tights, were like large drumsticks, and she fought me. I had never spanked anyone before. It felt . . . not as bad as I thought it should have. Between our huffs and grunts and the rustle of her clothes, it sounded like someone giving birth in the most primitive way, with no insurance and no idea who the father is. Women continued applying lipstick and fixing their hair. Spank a child at a county fair, no one bats an eye.
Then Sam quit fighting and went limp. I let go, and she slipped to the ground, covered her face in her hands, and made a noise like a wicker chair when a heavy person sits on it. Through splayed fingers she said, “I want to die.” I didn’t know if a child could want such a thing. At what age did the human mind comprehend death enough to want it? Then her shoulders began shaking, and she clawed her hands down her cheeks, and I realized she was laughing, hysterical, like she’d just killed her own grandparents with a salad fork. I understood there were deep psychological wounds at work here — her whole parentless, godless life — but I decided to take what the little crazy was offering.
When Fawn reemerged, she was in no shape to drive and couldn’t even find her keys. I called Stuart to come pick us up. He and I hadn’t spoken in ten days. and when he answered, in that first second or two, his voice was vaguely unfamiliar. How fast we lose one another.
In the Burger King drive-through Sam screamed, “These aren’t my parents! Call the cops!” She slid around the back seat, gobbling fries and calling me more vulgar names. By the time we got home, she’d cursed herself to sleep, lying half on the floor, half on the car’s seat, her hand curled around a strawberry shake. Fawn was all but passed out, mumbling and touching herself. I carried Sam to my room; Stuart carried Fawn. He dumped her on my bed. and I pulled off Sam’s dress and socks, as so many men after me would. Putting Sam and Fawn up for the night wasn’t much, but it was all I could do, all I was willing to do. As I lifted the blanket to Sam’s chin, the light from the hall fell across her face. Again I saw what a beauty she would be, providing she cleaned up and found someone to fix her teeth. Otherwise she’d wind up a minimart cashier with an alternating black eye. When I came out of the room, Stuart was sitting pitched forward on the loveseat. “That girl in there,” he said, “she’s eight or nine. She sure as shine isn’t five, I can tell you that.”
I said, “It doesn’t surprise me.”
I came and stood between his knees, pushed my hand through his hair. His head was hot with thought. He touched the fabric of my sweater, curious to see what it was made of. You don’t often find men his age curious about the world on the level of warp and woof. The first sprouts of silver were coming in behind his ear, and I thought, Stuart, we’re growing old, every minute, all the time.
“This is something you have to work out,” he said, “and I can’t and won’t wait forever.”
I pulled his face against my stomach, like a pregnant wife might do. It was a convenient gesture, but maybe I was trying it out too.
The next morning I was up at dawn with a pot of coffee. From the bedroom Sam called for me. I brought her orange juice, but she was asleep again, or faking it. Fawn was curled up, spooning Sam, and I could smell her boozy breath from three feet away. If the two of them could sleep twenty hours a day, I thought, they’d do all right. Only sleep kept some people safe.
Back in the kitchen, I sipped my coffee. Before me on the table sat the cordless phone and Mavis’s home number. I wouldn’t have to tell half of what Fawn was up to, and the wagon from the orphanage would come, with its lollipops and tranquilizer guns, and cart Sam away. If I ratted her out, it would be the thing Fawn never forgave, whether I’d been right or wrong to do it.
I dialed Mavis’s number. I apologized for the delay in returning her call, but I’d been in Africa. We talked for a long time. I got the feeling she wanted to hear the very things I had to say about Fawn and Sam: what a pair they were already, what a match. It was the truth, perhaps, though that didn’t mean they were good for each other. That I wouldn’t know for years.