• New short fiction, every week.
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  • 27. The Teahouse of the Almighty

    By Kathleen Foster

    After an unexpected hiatus, you all deserve a reward. And here it is: The first of two stories by the wonderful new writer Kathleen Foster. “The Teahouse of the Almighty” is about hopes, and about whom we bond with, and why. Then, later this week, we’ll follow up with a second story, “The Loveliest Children”—completely unrelated, despite the title, except perhaps for the fineness of the author’s eye.

    Erin cleans houses for families who are not exceptionally wealthy, but just affluent enough to afford a service every two weeks. She is a small luxury for them, something they feel they deserve. Laura and David are typical clients. Erin has been recommended to them by Laura’s coworker, who lives two streets over, in a virtually identical split-level ranch. When Erin visits their house for the first time, on an overcast August afternoon, to evaluate the job and determine a price, she notices the fish eye mirror hanging over the fireplace. She thinks it might be difficult to polish. It’s a convex piece of silver glass in an ornate frame, and when she glances up at it she sees herself, small and distorted, in the middle of a room that seems to recede at the edges. “What do you want me to use on this? Windex?”

    “Well, you could use that.” Laura nudges the ceramic angels on the mantelpiece into a precise line. “It wouldn’t hurt it, I guess. The thing is, I buy only organic cleaning products. I’m trying to go completely organic. They’re a little more, though, so it’s probably silly. Do you ever go to Natural Foods? Oh, maybe not. Anyway, it’s all in a bucket under the sink. One of them is like Windex but it’s vinegar-based.”

    “Vinegar?”

    “I’m trying to keep chemicals out of the house.” Laura talks faster than anyone Erin has ever met. Her sentences tumble into each other until she runs out of breath and has to inhale in a quick gasp before beginning again. She’s short and compact, with no discernable waist. Her chin-length blond hair is cut and blow-dried in layers, but in the large wedding portrait above the sofa, Erin can see that she was once a brunette.

    Erin follows her through the living room, noticing the pristine set of artificial logs in the fireplace, the thick pink rug that retains a temporary impression of their shoes, and the porcelain candy dish on the coffee table. In the dining room, Laura points out the oversized china cabinet stacked with the gold-rimmed plates that belonged to her grandmother. “I’m the family pack-rat,” she says. “I have another set in the basement from David’s mother.”

    “Do I dust these?”

    “You can do around the edges and on top. That should be enough.”

    They continue down the hall to the three bedrooms. Peeking into the first one, past the four-poster, Erin wonders if Laura expects her to move all the lipsticks from the dressing table and dust underneath the doily. I’ll do it the first time, she thinks, and then we’ll see. The guest room will be easy. She’ll run the vacuum under the bed and go over the surfaces with a cloth. The third bedroom is completely empty. “What should I do in here? Just sweep?”

    “Oh, you can leave that one alone. We haven’t done anything with that room yet.”

    *

    Riding home afterward, Erin rests her forehead against the cool window glass as the bus rattles over the Fore River Bridge. In the long-closed shipyard, the rusted boat cranes, large enough to raise a tanker, hulk against the sky. She closes her eyes so she won’t have to look at them. Staring at the huge, barren structures seems an unlucky thing to do, like walking under a ladder. She shouldn’t have agreed so readily to the amount Laura suggested—sixty dollars every two weeks. The job will take four hours, at least, and she could have asked for eighty or eighty-five. Michael won’t be happy. When it comes down to it, she always accepts the first price right away. She isn’t really a businesswoman. She doesn’t negotiate. Michael points this out whenever he has the chance. He says she doesn’t know how to value herself. When she gets back to the apartment, she tells him that they settled on sixty. He drums his fingers on the table and looks out the window. Then he goes into the bedroom and shuts the door.

    *

    She met him five years before, when she was twenty-two, while working as a clerk at Marion’s Shoes in Weymouth Landing. Michael McNulty came in to buy a pair of wing-tips. She noticed him right away. He was nearly six feet tall with bright blue eyes, a flush of color in his cheeks, and a very close crew cut. As she measured his feet he said, “Well, you’re just lovely,” in a heavy brogue that reminded her of her mother. Her arms shook so much that she was afraid she would drop the stack of shoe boxes, sizes ten and a half and eleven, all over the stock room floor.

    Erin knew she was not lovely. However, over the weeks that followed Michael’s first visit to the store, as he continued to drop in, she had begun to imagine that he might find her so. She was pear-shaped, but not too heavy, and her hair was red if she stood in a certain angle of sunlight. She had freckles, not only on her nose and cheeks but on her forehead and chin as well. He took her to the movies and to dinner every Friday night, although, after the first two times, she paid. Before long, it was just as easy to sleep at his apartment as to return to her own. He encouraged her to stay with him—practically insisted. Sometimes she would catch him watching her as she moved through the apartment and a little shiver would run through her. He needs me so much, she told herself, delighted.

    Still, though, there were times when she wondered about him. One day, two months after they met, she collected the mail from his box downstairs and found an issue of Glamour magazine addressed to Jennifer McNulty at his apartment number. She pointed it out to him as she dropped the mail onto the table. “Who’s Jennifer?”

    “What?”

    “Here on this magazine.”

    He inspected the periodical, turning it over in his hands and flipping through the pages. “It’s a mistake with one of the downstairs neighbors. It’s happened before.”

    “But it’s this apartment number.”

    He blinked several times and leaned toward her. “If you’re going to be this way about everything, it’ll be over before it starts. I tell you, it’s a mistake. I thought I got it straightened out but I didn’t.” He touched her gently under the chin and his expression softened. “You’ll have to trust me.”

    “All right. I’m sorry.” After a few seconds she held out her hand for the magazine. “I’ll bring it down.”

    “What?”

    “I’ll take it downstairs.”

    “You will not,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” A full twenty-four hours elapsed before he would speak to her again.

    *

    Two weeks later, Erin returns to Laura and David’s house, as scheduled. She opens the door with the key Laura gave her and is surprised to find the woman at home, lying on the sofa. Erin hesitates at the threshold, but Laura calls out, “No, no, come in. I was expecting you.” Her feet, clad in white sport socks, are propped up on a pillow.

    “Are you sick?” Erin asks.

    “No, just resting.”

    “I’ll try to be quiet.” Erin walks as softly as she can to the hall closet to get the vacuum.

    “It’s fine.” Laura raises herself onto her elbows. “I’m fine. Actually, I’m dying to tell someone. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve left my job. It was too much for me.”

    The vacuum is heavy. Erin sets it down again. She would prefer to dive right into her work but there seems to be no way to avoid the conversation. “What line of work were you in?”

    “I was a social worker.”

    “Well, that must have been a tough job. People and their problems. No wonder you wanted to quit that.”

    “I liked it, actually.” Laura sits all the way up and swings her feet to the floor. “I’ve been doing it a long time. It’s hard, but there are good moments too. I handled a lot of adoptions, which is nice. I remember one where this family had been a foster family for a baby that was taken out of a home in the middle of the night, right in the middle of the night, a domestic violence situation. Anyway, we had to call the emergency foster family in the night, you know, and so they picked up the phone, and we brought the baby over. They had such a tough time, you know, with the birth mother, and her not getting her act together, and finally we terminated rights and they could adopt. It was a long road.”

    “I guess so.”

    Laura looks at Erin as though she expects her to say more. Her eyebrows are raised slightly and her lips are parted to show her perfectly even teeth.

    “So why did you leave?” Erin asks, finally.

    Laura smiles. “Because I’m expecting a baby.”

    “Oh, wow. That’s great.”

    “We’ve had a lot of trouble, so I have to take it easy, just to be on the safe side.”

    “That’s wonderful. Good for you. Just put your feet up and relax, and I’ll try to go around as quickly as I can.”

    “Don’t rush.” Laura lies back again and closes her eyes.

    Erin vacuums the rugs in the hallway and the two furnished bedrooms. She moves the lipsticks on Laura’s dressing table as well as the lace doily and dusts the wood all around. She makes the bed, taking care that the comforter is even on both sides. As she passes the third bedroom, she realizes why it’s empty. Even though she doesn’t need to, she runs the vacuum around it, sucking the dust out of the corners. When she is finished, she takes the bucket of cleaning supplies from under the kitchen sink and goes to work on the bathrooms. Erin doesn’t mind cleaning bathrooms. She doesn’t mind cleaning at all, actually. It’s so satisfying, so predictable. When she scrubs a toilet with Lysol and a sponge, it’s clean. Every time.

    Michael has a part-time job with a painting company on the South Shore. He paints most mornings and is often home in the early afternoon. Erin walks into the apartment to find him sitting at the kitchen table, eating an Italian sub.

    “Hi.” She takes off her sneakers and leaves them next to the door.

    He looks up and wipes his mouth against his sleeve. He has streaks of paint on his shirt and upper arms and a dirty rope bracelet around his wrist, which she gave to him last summer when they went for a day to Salisbury Beach.

    “I did my first job over at that new house I told you about,” she says.

    “Big house?”

    “It was okay.”

    “Probably one of those great big houses.”

    “It was kind of weird because the lady was home.”

    “She was there watching you clean the freaking house?”

    “Kind of. She’s pregnant, so she quit her job.”

    He crumples up the empty sub wrapper and throws it away. “My mother took care of seven other kids when she was pregnant and this lady can’t go to some office job?”

    “I think she had some kind of problem, so she has to lie down.”

    “What kind of problems?”

    “I just think she had trouble getting pregnant.” Erin begins to wash the dishes they left in the sink that morning.

    “Oh, yeah? Did you tell her about your problems?”

    Erin freezes with her back to him, her hands soapy. “My problems?”

    “You know, your problems. Why we can’t have a baby.”

    She turns around. “It’ll happen, Michael. Sometimes it takes a while.”

    “Jesus, you’ve been saying that for three years. Go to the doctor and find out what’s wrong with your plumbing.”

    “It’s expensive to do all that.”

    He stands up abruptly and goes into the bedroom. She hears the television go on.

    Erin isn’t sorry that they haven’t yet conceived a child. Although she doesn’t often admit it to herself, and hasn’t spoken about it to anyone else, she knows that Michael is difficult to manage. She keeps hoping, though, that if she can find the right combination of words and actions, she will return him to the lighthearted, romantic man he seemed when he walked into the shoe store. She tries not to let the little things bother her. The long view is what’s important, she tells herself. Where they are headed, not how things are day to day.

    *

    Erin’s mother read tarot cards in their apartment in Weymouth until she died of emphysema—a fate, surprisingly, she did not foresee. Erin was seventeen years old when her mother received the diagnosis and twenty-one when she died. During the time in between, Siobhaun tried to teach Erin her craft. They spent long afternoons with the deck arranged on a TV table beside the couch. Erin squinted at the cards, watching her mother’s tired face and trying to give her readings that sounded genuine.

    Erin explains this to Laura in a loud voice as she vacuums around the coffee table. Laura lies on the couch, which now has a pile of books and magazines stacked beside it.

    “Should I move these?”

    “Oh, no. Just go around. Actually, do you want a cup of tea?”

    Erin turns off the vacuum. “Tea?”

    “It’s just so nice to have someone to chat with. I’ve got my mother, of course. I can call her, but I talk to her about three times a day, so it gets a little tired. Most of my friends are working, of course, or busy with kids. If you don’t mind making it, I’d love to have a quick cup.”

    Erin goes into the kitchen and finds two mugs. She fills them with water and puts them in the microwave, adds teabags, and then brings them back into the living room. She settles into a wing back chair across from Laura.

    “I’m sorry about your mother,” Laura says. “Emphysema is terrible.”

    Erin nods. “Thanks.”

    “Do you have other family?”

    “No. Well, yes. I’m with someone. We’ve lived together for six years.”

    “What’s he like?”

    “He’s nice. A bit overprotective. Just looking out for me, though.” Erin tries to drink her tea quickly.

    “Overprotective?”

    “I don’t know why I said that. He’s Irish, so sometimes they can be a little, you know, protective. He’s a painter.”

    “He’s Irish? Where from?”

    “Oh, well.” Erin blushes. “You know, we don’t talk too much about the past.”

    “Why not?”

    “I guess I don’t know. He’s just not that way.”

    “Do you mind that?”

    “Oh, no. It’s fine with me.” All of a sudden, Erin feels her eyes begin to fill. She stands up quickly and a drop of tea splashes over the rim of the mug and onto the pink carpet. “I’m so sorry. I’ll get it up. It won’t stain.” She dashes into the kitchen and grabs a dishtowel.

    “I don’t care if it does stain,” Laura calls from the living room. “Don’t worry about it. Are you okay?”

    Erin dabs at the spot on her hands and knees. “There, it’s up. I think it’s up.”

    “Please don’t worry about it. It’s nothing. Maybe it’s a sign.” She smiles.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Tea leaves. That’s your gift.”

    Erin looks up. “What?”

    “Instead of tarot. Tea leaves. You have a great future in leaves.”

    “Oh.”

    “I’m just teasing, Erin. Just trying to get you to smile.”

    Erin does smile, and then a shiver of fear runs along her neck.

    *

    She wakes just before seven to wash her face and put on her velour sweatpants. She eats a banana and stuffs a magazine into her backpack. When she emerges from the bathroom, Michael stands by the door. “Where are you going?”

    “I have to clean the dentist’s office today.”

    “Don’t you do that on Tuesdays?”

    “I did, but Laura, you know, my new house, asked if I could start coming every week instead of every other, so I rescheduled the dentist. He doesn’t see patients on Saturday mornings, so he didn’t care.”

    Michael leans against the doorframe with his hands in his pajama pockets. “Why does she want you to come every week? So you can sit around and chat?”

    “I think she just wants a clean house.”

    “Somehow, I don’t think so. She’s lonely, so you sit over there telling her everything about our lives.”

    “It’s extra money, though.”

    “I don’t care about the money. I want you at home on a Saturday. Tell her to forget it.”

    Erin feels a weight like a stone in her stomach. He puts his hands out. “It’s you I’m worried about, after all. I don’t want you to get your hopes up thinking she’s your dear friend. She’s not your friend.”

    She lets him pull her in toward his chest and wrap his arms around her. She thinks of her mother, sitting propped up with pillows on the embroidered wing chair, her breath rattling in and out. Siobhaun would glare down at the cards on the folding table. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Erin. Sometimes you can’t read them straight on. You have to change it a little to help the person along. There’s no harm in it, if your intentions are good.”

    *

    Erin doesn’t have the close friends her mother had, years ago. On afternoons of her childhood, the kitchen was filled with women sitting around the table smoking Benson and Hedges and drinking Bewley’s tea. As a teenager, she often joined them after school, watching them flip tarot cards and emptying the green plastic ashtrays with a decade of soot ground into them. While Erin knew very little about her peers at the high school, she was aware that Ailish’s husband did not come home one night and had been trying to make up for it ever since. She heard that Roisin had been crowned Rose of Tralee when she was seventeen and it had been her finest hour, and that Maeve’s daughter had three boys already with another one on the way and was worn out at twenty-six.

    Maeve was the one who convinced Erin to give up the baby. “You don’t want to end up like my Michelle,” she said, “still a young girl and with your best days behind you.” Her mother agreed, and Erin did not regret the decision. She was only fifteen, and she had hardly known the boy. Years later, after Erin’s mother’s death, Maeve had tried hardest of all of them to stay in touch. Her Michelle needed so much help, though, with the four children running all over the apartment, and her husband working nights that Maeve didn’t have much left over for a grown woman who, after all, wasn’t her own child.

    *

    “I think it’s nice you’re able to come more often,” Laura says. “The house looks great, which is nice, and the whole thing’s such a bright spot in my day. How much television can a person watch?”

    “It’s true. There’s never much on. Sometimes I try to catch Oprah if I’m home.”

    “Oh, I watch that too.” Laura takes a sip of her tea. Her bare feet rest on the coffee table, and most of her hair is pulled into a bristly little ponytail on top of her head. Erin hasn’t even taken the cleaning supplies from under the sink. Each week for the past five she has spent so much time talking with Laura that she has to run around afterward doing the cleaning. Even skipping the corners and swishing the toilet only once, she has been late to her afternoon house twice in a row. Without telling Michael, she dropped the dentist as a client altogether, but with the additional money from an extra day at Laura’s things are coming out even.

    “Do you think you and Michael will ever get married?” Laura asks.

    Erin wishes she wouldn’t look at her with such a direct gaze. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Michael says the important thing is that we’re together because we love each other, not because some law says we have to be.”

    “And what do you think?”

    “I suppose he has a good point.”

    “What about children? Is that in the plan?”

    Erin fidgets with the string of her teabag. “He wants kids so badly. He brings it up all the time.”

    Laura leans forward, eyebrows raised. “You’re kidding.”

    “What?”

    “He just doesn’t sound like the kids type.”

    “We’ve been trying for a couple of years but nothing’s happened.”

    “Oh, my God. Erin, I had no idea. I should’ve been more sensitive. Me, of all people.”

    “It’s okay, really.” Erin takes a deep breath. “Here’s the thing. I’ve never told Michael this, or anybody else for years and years. I don’t think it’s my fault that we can’t have a child. I mean, it could be, but I doubt it.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “You can’t tell anybody.”

    “Erin, for heaven’s sake.”

    “I got pregnant when I was in high school. I was fifteen. The baby was healthy—a girl. I gave her up for adoption.”

    “You poor thing.”

    “That’s why I don’t want to have any tests or anything like that, the way Michael wants me to. I think they’re going to show that it’s not me.”

    “Why is that a problem?”

    Erin stands up and gathers the empty tea cups and the plate with the blueberry muffin crumbs. “I’d better get started.”

    “Can I ask you something?”

    “Sure.”

    “Is everything okay at home?”

    “Of course it is.”

    “That’s great. I’m glad about that.”

    *

    “I’ve planned something for you,” Michael says. It’s a Saturday morning, and the early October light is coming through the bedroom window at a slant, illuminating the foot of the bed. Erin opens her eyes and turns to face him. “What is it?”

    “Get dressed.” He pulls back the covers, slides out of bed, and shuffles to the shower.

    When they are dressed, they get into Michael’s pickup truck and drive south along Route Three. Although the sun is out, the air is crisp. Erin is glad she has worn a jacket. They drive to Nantasket Beach and park in the large empty lot by the concrete seawall. The shops along the tinny boardwalk are shut up for the season. The carousel is closed as well, the doors on each side of its faded gazebo padlocked tight.

    “Let’s take ourselves a walk,” Michael says.

    “All right.”

    They get out of the car and climb over the wall. Erin zips up her coat. Michael reaches over and grabs her hand, and they walk along the edge of the water. Erin marvels at the strangeness of walking through the sand in sneakers. It’s too cold to take them off, but it seems nearly obscene to deny her toes the chance to curl around the tiny grains. Michael stops suddenly. “I know I’m not easy to live with.”

    “I don’t know.”

    “No, it’s true. I’m not easy, but you put up with me.”

    Erin smiles. “It’s okay.”

    “I’ve been planning to do this for a long time, but it’s hard to find the right moment.” He puts his hand in his pocket. She feels as though her stomach has dropped out onto the sand. He pulls out a heavy gold claddagh ring and holds it up between his thumb and forefinger so she can see the pale blue sky through its center.

    “So, I’m asking myself, is this the right moment?”

    It was only a matter of time, thinks Erin. Of course he had been planning to do this.

    “It’s a bit big,” Michael says. “It was my father’s, but I thought I could have it sized down.”

    She holds out her hand to touch it, to feel its weight in her palm. He closes his fist around it. “The thing is, I’m not sure it is the right moment.” A faint color has appeared on his neck, spreading upwards toward his chin. “See, I have to put up with a lot too. From yourself.”

    “What?”

    “What I mean is, could I really marry someone who lies to my face? A deliberate lie?”

    Erin’s arms begin to shake.

    “See, I asked you one small thing. Don’t go every week. And not only do you do it, but it’s the lie that gets to me.”

    She can hardly speak. “Michael, I’m so sorry. I should have—”

    “But you did.” He raises his arm, the ring clutched in his fist. “And I don’t think I could marry someone who treats me like that.”

    Her cheeks are hot. “Wait.”

    “No, I don’t think so.”

    He pitches his arm forward. Erin sees the glint of the sun on metal and the gentle plink as the ring hits the water.

    “See what you’ve brought me to,” he says.

    After he drives away, Erin sits for a long time on the seawall, watching the gulls circling and diving for fish. Finally, she hears a honk behind her. She turns around. Michael pulls up alongside the curb. He reaches over and rolls down the passenger-side window. “Just get in.” She hops down from the wall and climbs into the truck. He puts the oldies station on the radio and taps his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music as they drive home.

    *

    The following Tuesday, Erin rides to Laura’s on the bus, one minute thinking she will explain that she’s dropping her as a client and the next that she will reveal exactly what happened over the weekend. When she arrives at the house, she notices two cars in the driveway. She lets herself in with her key and finds herself face to face with a man in jeans and a Notre Dame sweatshirt. He wears round glasses and, though he does not look older than forty-five, his hair is gray all over. He has a day’s growth of stubble on his face.

    “Who are you?” he asks.

    “Oh, David, I completely forgot,” Laura calls from somewhere inside the house. “It’s the cleaning girl.”

    “We’re going to have to reschedule,” David says.

    “No, she can come in.” Laura’s voice comes from the bedroom. “Let her in.”

    David shrugs and allows Erin to pass by him into the house. He closes the door. The place is untidy. Laundry and magazines are scattered around, mixed in with empty plates and cups. Before she gets the vacuum from the closet, she creeps down the hall and peeks into Laura’s bedroom. Laura lies with the covers pulled up to her chin. The small television in the hutch is on, but Laura stares in the other direction. She smiles faintly when she sees Erin.

    “Hi,” Erin says. “I’m sorry to bother you. Should I come back another time?”

    “It’s okay. I completely forgot that you were coming. It’s a good thing you’re here, actually, because the house is a disaster.” She closes her eyes.

    “But what happened?”

    “I lost the baby.” Laura keeps her eyes closed. “It happened over the weekend.”

    “Oh, God,” Erin says. “I’m so sorry.”

    “It’s the sixth pregnancy I’ve lost. It was our last chance.”

    “It was?” Erin wants to sit at the foot of the bed but is afraid it might be inappropriate.

    “We’ve tried everything. This was our second round of in vitro. At a great clinic, too. There are just so many things wrong with me—eggs, womb; it’s never going to work.” Her voice trembles. “I’m just so disappointed.”

    Erin decides she doesn’t care if it’s inappropriate. She comes into the room and sits down at the end of the bed. “Have you thought about adopting?”

    Laura pulls a tissue from the box beside her pillow. “Oh, we’ve thought of everything. As a first step, we’re going to look into trying to find a surrogate. At least that way, the child would be biologically David’s.”

    “Oh.”

    “But we don’t want to ask a stranger.” Laura blows her nose. “It’s hard to approach somebody about it. You want to hear something crazy? I even thought about asking you if you’d consider it. I’m probably just grasping at straws.”

    “What’s involved in being a surrogate?”

    Laura sits up. “You’ve got to— I guess you’ve got to be willing to get pregnant, and then, well, give us the baby. I mean, there’s a contract and everything, but there’s a lot of trust involved too.”

    Erin feels herself blush. She lowers her voice. “But how do you actually get pregnant?”

    “Oh.” Laura grimaces. “I think there are a couple of options. I mean, everyone would have to be comfortable with the awkwardness of it.”

    “Wouldn’t that be hard? For you, I mean?”

    “I just want to have a child. I feel like I’m getting old so fast, and we’ve wasted so many years.” She dabs at her eyes with the dirty tissue. “Obviously, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but here’s something to think about. Surrogate mothers are well compensated, you know, living expenses. From what we’ve read, twenty thousand is the average. We’d pay all your medical costs too.”

    “Twenty thousand?”

    “You could start over, Erin, if you wanted to. I was a social worker for fifteen years. I can tell that you have problems at home. Just think about it.”

    Erin stands up. “Okay. I’ll think about it.”

    “Thanks.”

    *

    Erin finds she had nothing to say to Michael. She thinks about Laura’s offer every day and tries to consider it from all sides. She makes breakfast in the morning and puts away the dishes afterward. She leaves on the bus and returns in the late afternoon. She reads magazines, makes dinner, and goes to bed early. She answers all of his questions with the shortest responses possible, and she goes to Laura’s every Tuesday.

    One evening, when she returns to the apartment, he has made a meatloaf and potatoes dinner and opened a bottle of wine. She almost walks past the table on her way to the bedroom, but she’s hungry. “I’m so sorry,” he says as soon as she sits down.

    She picks up her fork and begins to eat the meatloaf.

    “It’s terrible, what I done. I shouldn’t have.”

    “Probably not.” Erin butters her potato.

    “I’ll never do anything like that again.” He pours wine into her glass. “I’m going to buy another ring, one with a diamond in it. You deserve something new, one of your own.”

    “I liked the other one just fine.”

    After dinner Erin stands for a while on the rickety back porch, listening to a squirrel rustling in a tree in the next yard. She can hear two men arguing through an open window several houses away, and inside, the sound of Michael cleaning up the dinner dishes. Although the night is clear, it isn’t dark enough to make out more than one or two faint stars. Even if she could see them, she isn’t sure she would remember any of the astrological signs her mother tried to teach her. It’s always so hard to tell one from another.

    *

    Laura insists that Erin take prenatal vitamins for a month. Erin keeps the container in her purse and enjoys hearing it rattle as she swings the bag onto her shoulder. The three of them review the options, and after much discussion, in the interest of keeping things as organic as possible, Erin and David do it the old-fashioned way, on the four-poster bed within sight of Laura’s dressing table. Laura goes away to Newport with some of her girlfriends for the weekend, so she’ll have something to distract her. David is older than Michael, but he seems less confident. He is overly solicitous and keeps asking Erin if she’s all right. He keeps his eyes closed most of the time. Erin looks around the room at the elaborately framed family tree, the two diplomas on either side of the lamp, the quilts folded neatly in a wicker basket on the rug. She stares at David’s salt and pepper hair, his smooth, hairless chest and back, and, suddenly, it’s over. David covers her up gently and goes into the bathroom to take a shower. Erin lies in the bed for a couple of minutes, then dresses slowly and let herself out.

    *

    Over time, the idea of another baby, once unimaginable, begins to take shape in Erin’s mind. She pictures herself sitting on Laura and David’s sofa, watching an infant crawl around, her chubby red knees making little divots in the thick pile of the carpet. She allows herself to consider that somewhere, her child, surrendered at birth to an unknown couple, is twelve years old. That girl does not know how to lay out a tarot deck, would not understand how an ailing woman with brittle white hair could tell the future, could sum up all a person’s possibilities in the time it took to exhale a plume of smoke: Ace of Cups, Three of Swords, the Lovers, the Tower, the High Priestess.

    *

    Erin has planned the moment carefully. She buys a bunch of red and white carnations at the supermarket and brings them with her to Laura’s house. Laura has not been there for the past few weeks when Erin came to clean, but instead left handwritten instructions on flowered note paper on the kitchen counter, reminding her to wash the inside of the microwave, or change the towels in the bathroom. Erin is delighted to see Laura’s car in the driveway this time, as she walks up the road toward the house. She considers whether she will present the flowers before or after she makes the announcement. She slides her key into the lock and pushes the door open. The smell of vinegar fills her nose the moment she steps into the house. It turns her stomach and she gags, leaning over and putting her hands on her knees until the feeling goes away.

    “Is that you, Erin?”

    She stands up and the sensation subsides. She climbs the stairs to the living room. Right away she notices that the coffee table has been dusted. The candy dish sparkles. The mirror over the fireplace, its curved surface polished, reflects light and color into the room.

    “Erin?” Laura looks up from her newspaper as Erin enters the kitchen.

    “Hi. I brought you these.” She meant to do it more gracefully.

    Laura looks embarrassed. “Let me get a vase. How are you feeling?” She takes a ceramic container from the cabinet and fills it. She unwraps the carnations and drops them into the water without cutting the stems.

    Erin watches her. “I’m fine. The house seems clean already.”

    “Have you taken a test yet?”

    Erin hesitates. Laura glances up.

    “Not yet. I’ll take one tomorrow,” Erin says. I’ll call with the news, she thinks. Calling is even better.

    Laura turns around, realizes she has forgotten the flowers, retrieves them, and puts them in the center of the table. “I wanted to talk to you. Sit down.”

    “Should I make some tea?”

    “Tea? Oh, well. Why don’t you just sit down. Have you looked at those apartments? The one on Broad Street is lovely. I talked to the landlady, and you can be in at the beginning of next month.”

    “I’ll be sure to call her.” Erin shifts in her chair. She wants to look at the dining room to see if it, too, has been done.

    “We want you to be comfortable. It’s really important to us. And we’ve found someone else to clean the house. It just doesn’t seem right to have you continue, under the circumstances.”

    “But I don’t mind. It’s no problem. I’ll stick with it.” She can’t give up sixty dollars every Tuesday. How will she explain it to Michael? She remembers suddenly that she won’t have to explain it. She’ll be leaving him and moving into her own place at the end of the month.

    “It just doesn’t seem appropriate.”

    “Appropriate?”

    “There’s more to it than that, even. I just need to create some distance, to prepare myself. David and I both need some distance. It will be easier for everyone as we go forward.

    Leaving him for what? The thought comes like a rush into Erin’s abdomen. And what will she have then? “I don’t think it will be easier,” she says.

    “We’ll help you with all the arrangements, don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything. It’s for the best if we can just be a little less familiar.”

    *

    When Erin gets home, she turns on the fan in the kitchen of the apartment. It oscillates back and forth on its rickety pole and stirs the curtains above the sink. It’s unseasonably hot for late November. She takes two pork chops out of the refrigerator, dips them in egg and breadcrumbs and fries them in a pan with butter. The smell of them bothers her stomach but she cooks them anyway, because Michael likes them. When he comes out of the room to see what she is cooking, he smiles and sits down at the table. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and on one of his shiny, freckled shoulders she can see a thin wisp of a line, milky white, where a scar formed some time in the past, before she knew him. The words come bursting out of her before she can stop them, and they feel like the truth. “I got fired. That newish home I picked up, you know, the Tuesday house? She let me go.” Her cheeks are hot and she thinks she might cry.

    He reaches up and pulls her down on his lap. “I don’t believe it. And after all you’ve done for her? I mean, what she put you through? And me as well? She really put us through something.”

    She nods.

    “So she wasn’t your friend. I told you she wasn’t.”

    With a shock she realizes he was right. She stands up. He stretches out his long legs under the table. She puts boil-in-bag rice in a pot on the stove and opens a can of green beans. Something about the canned vegetables makes her think of her mother, who bought Veg-All by the case and stored it in the hall closet. “You really don’t have the gift,” she said before she died. “You’ll just have to pretend.” An idea comes to her, fully formed, as though it has been in her mind all along. She waits until she can hear him shifting restlessly in his seat, and then she serves him a plate of supper. She takes a sip of water. She looks him straight in the eye. “I have some wonderful news,” she whispers.

    *

    © by Kathleen Foster. Used by permission.



    2 Comments

    1. Polished Concrete PALM BEACH on October 30, 2010 :

      Good stuff!

    2. Oriental Rug Cleaning Miami on December 30, 2010 :

      Great post!

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