This is My Baby-Cousin’s Chair…Take it Away, Mark Benedict!
(Art by Peter Brandstatter (1917-)
My younger cousin, the blond on the far left of this Thanksgiving at Barothy Lodge family pic, on someone’s shoulders, is not so young anymore, and is graduating from Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program this spring. He finally sent me some stories. Oh, baby. I knew they’d be wild but this one is crazy! What a trip!
Molly was almost out the door when she was stopped short by a meek tug at the back of her overcoat. She closed her eyes, on the verge of yelling. Nothing was simple; everything was an argument. They were obstacles, roadblocks—thieves of her momentum. She reluctantly glanced over her shoulder. It was the six-year-old, Jacob, one hand clutching her frayed coattail, the other gripping a crumbled cupcake.
“Don’t go,” he said.
“What did I tell you about whining? And I already told you, I have to go find someone to look after you and your sister.” Last night the daysitter, Myra, a blobby older woman with silver hair, had called and quit. No two-weeks notice, no explanation.
“Don’t leave us,” he pleaded. His cheek was smudged with chocolate frosting.
“Oh, stop! Wipe your face and go play with your sister.”
Coming out of the apartment building, still tense from the ride down in the rickety elevator, Molly turned up her collar against the chill air and set out for the temp agency. It was a pitiful morning: sky the color of sheet metal, no sun in sight, and sidewalks flooded with dirty melted snow; beer caps and used condoms floated in the slush like buoys. And the passersby, always a sorry lot, were especially grim today.
She walked briskly, not making eye contact, and thought bitterly of Ken, her ex. All his promises, all his declarations of security, all for shit. “Little lady,” he had once said, “you’ll want for nothing. I personally guarantee it.” The pitch smacked more of contract than romance, but then, that was his appeal. He had an aura of dependability; at the time, she could rationalize trading love for comfort. And what had she gotten for her practical thinking? Big fat zero. Want for nothing? Yeah, right. The marriage was strained from the first, as if they had arrived late and missed the honeymoon phase, and Ken proved such an immediate letdown—he was a lousy lover and never helped with the children—that it was hardly a shocker when he eventually let her down in everything.
And so here she was, twenty-eight, exhausted, stuck with two kids she never particularly wanted to have in the first place, stranded without friends or family in a city that everyday showed fresh signs of decay. If there was any money, she would move them away from here, but there was no money. Child support was a joke, and her pay as a secretary, just about the best pay she could get, was only marginally less laughable. And there were no escape routes, not for a woman with two kids and no degree. She was still pretty, maybe, but the stench of birth and divorce was on her, warding off all but the most repulsive suitors, and anyway she had had it with men. They were all repulsive. Really, she would be thrilled when her looks were gone and they left her alone.
A memory lost to her forever: when she was fourteen and in junior high, a boy named Mike Brewster had offhandedly told her that she was the prettiest girl in school. It was before fifth period, and though she had no particular affection for this boy, the
compliment left her so breathless that she couldn’t even muster a thank-you. Walking right by her class, she went to the bathroom, locked herself in a stall, and wept.
When she entered the temp agency, a ground-floor office with a few work stations in front and a wall-to-wall counter at the back, the employees—three women, each pale and drab, and each with a sad attempt at a Farrah Do—registered her arrival so dimly that they seem drugged. She approached the counter, where the drabbest of all was standing.
“I’m Molly Pruitt,” she said. “I have an appointment to meet with one of the temps. Kendra, I think her name was.”
The woman shook her head, her face as blank as a mannequin’s. “Sorry, Mrs. Pruitt. Kendra called this morning. Her car broke down and she couldn’t get a ride in.”
“What?” Molly stared, on the verge of panic. “But I took the day off work to get this sorted out,” she explained. “I was supposed to meet Kendra here and then take her back and introduce her to my kids. Your people said she could start tomorrow.”
“Next time, call ahead. You never know with these girls. They mean well, but they’re all a little unpredictable.”
“What exactly are you saying here? I mean, is it just today that she’s not available, or is she not available for the job?”
The woman shrugged. “I guess that depends on her car, on whether she gets it fixed or not. Call back tomorrow. One way or another we’ll get you someone.”
Back on the street, Molly just stood there, dazed, hoping that someone would notice her distress and come to her aid. Then she scanned the crowds for her savior and almost laughed. Oh, sure. These people were so uniformly tattered and grubby that it was almost impossible to tell the merely impoverished from the bona fide homeless. So what now? She would have to take a long lunch tomorrow to take care of this, was what; the children would have to fend for themselves for one day.
She started back, thinking of her friend Randy from her college days. Randy, her could-have-been. He was a musician, a guitarist, a funny but intense young man with long scraggly hair and eyes that burned right through you. He had decided to drop out and head for California to start a band around the same time she was getting ready to drop out to marry Ken. He invited her along, his tone remarkably offhand, as if he were merely asking her to change vacation plans; still, his eyes were fervent, searching. Randy excited her far more than Ken ever had, but his future was likely to be ragtag and he seemed like someone who might leave her. Declining, she told him she wished things were different. “Honey,” he said, “they could be if you wanted. That Ken guy, well, I guess he sounds okay, but do you really want to play housewife to a suit? And that city he’s taking you to! No offense, but it’s a real shithole.” It was beyond tempting, but Ken, who was thirty at the time and already had a good job, seemed a much safer choice.
When after five loveless years of marriage Ken announced that he was leaving her for the receptionist at his accounting firm, the surge of hatred she felt for Ken was nothing compared with the flood of longing she felt for Randy.
And now she was thinking, not without guilt but not for the first time, of the children she would have had with him. She even had names for them—Sean and Maureen. Sean and Maureen were clean and self-sufficient and never whined. They were beautiful, like dolls come to life. Still, she resented that breeding was the basis of carnal love—that the stir of new romance was your body thrilling at the prospect of making more bodies. The stirring feeling was just babies trying to get out.
And pregnancy was a nightmare, the terror of anticipated labor poisoning nine months of your life, just as the inevitability of death loomed over your whole existence.
Another lost memory: Karen Gruber, her roommate freshman year, ever-admiring of the way that Molly took care of their plants and their pet hamster, had one day commented that Molly would make a wonderful mother. Molly blushed, glowing inside, and quickly turned to the windowsill and tipped the water pitcher into her gardenias. It was true, she did love to take care of things and watch them grow.
When she entered her apartment, the children were spread out in the middle of the floor playing with plastic Lincoln Logs. Seeing her, they squealed and leapt up.
Jenny, the three-year-old, fastened onto her leg. “Mumma, you came back!”
“Ow, not so hard. Of course I came back.”
“I’m so glad!”
The boy regarded her, his face scrunched. “But you said you were gonna find someone to take care of us.”
She frowned, embarrassed that they were so stupid. They thought she had abandoned them forever. “You dummies. I just went out to talk to someone about replacing the babysitter. Let go, Jenny, I have to take off my coat.”
She threw her coat aside and collapsed onto the sofa and watched as the children made wobbly Lincoln Log towers. She loved them, of course, but in the way you would love stray dogs. The stirring feeling hadn’t even been that stirring; they hadn’t wanted out that badly. It was amazing to consider: if she had had even a single drop of courage in her, they wouldn’t exist. She closed her eyes, on the verge of tears. Life was zestless; there was nothing to savor. She was a hostage to these little strangers and had never felt proud or possessive—not once. And the other ones, the real ones? She groped her chest, moaning. They would never get the chance to live. They would never be born.