Beth Lordan

Visitation

If for half an hour that Friday afternoon in spring everything was for their mother spangled and dancing, what was that to them? In they came from school, clanging and bumping and squabbling, and there was the baby sitting up and slapping the floor with her damp little hands and there was their mother standing by the sink scraping carrots over a piece of newspaper spread on the counter and there was the smell of winedrop cookies still warm on the plate. And there they were, Sandra, and Ricky and Mark, and Jeannie the oldest, and all of them, all of them, were spangled for her just now, and the carrots and peeler and the squirrels zanting through the tree outside the kitchen window and the backpacks and the stickers on Jeannie’s flute case and the red plastic block the baby captured in her damp little hand.

Hooligans, their mother sometimes called them, rapscallions, although they were beloved children, as safe and free as their parents could make them; sometimes she said I don’t see why we can’t sit down to supper like normal people without somebody falling off a chair, or Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just once have everybody know where their shoes are like normal people instead of this crisis every morning. But today (she rinsed the carrots, took up the grater) the light danced over their uproar. “Ricky ran ahead,” Jeannie said, “again,” and their mother said, “Ricky, don’t run ahead, you must mind your sister, the cars won’t be looking for a little guy like you,” so Ricky said, “I didn’t run in the road,” and after a moment (they were choosing cookies, arguing, slumping into chairs) Mark said, “There is too wine in these, isn’t there?” and Ricky tottered in his chair, calling out, “I’m drunk, I’m drunk on cookies!” but their mother said, “No, of course there’s not,” and (she finished the grating, tossed the nub of the last carrot onto the peelings) “Speak up,” for there was Sandra whispering with a paper in her hand, so Sandra shrilled, “I have ten spelling words!” and her lip quivered, so their mother blew a messy raspberry to say “Ten’s not so much,” and Mark copying the raspberry sprayed milk across the table which Jeannie thumped with both hands and (she was twelve now, and must do such things) wailed, “This is unbearable,” yet their mother, tossing the sponge onto the table, said only, “Lord, isn’t it!” and smiled.

Because today, only twenty minutes ago, she had become, again and for the first time in more than a dozen years, Morrison: that it could still happen, and so simply! The telephone had rung, she picked it up and said hello, and the voice in her ear said, “Morrison?” and there she was: young and free and a little bit wild, and standing there, the baby on her hip, she was that other self and this self at the selfsame moment, as she laughed aloud and said, “O’Connell!” for it could be no one else.

And tomorrow, on Saturday, O’Connell would stop by “for lunch, if you’re serving” on her way to an audition in Maine! “I figured I was in the neighborhood,” O’Connell said, that impudent laughter still in her voice, her own neighborhood five hundred miles away, this town fifty miles out of her way, “so why not, huh?” Why not, indeed!

She heaped the carrots into the yellow bowl and scooped a handful of raisins in on top, saying, “Don’t tip your chair, and Mark, clean that milk up – the sponge isn’t for decoration,” all spangled and dancing and fine, because she was still Morrison!

Fifteen minutes ago, in the first moment after she hung up the phone, she had twirled the baby around and around the kitchen, saying “O’Connell here, here!” and the baby had laughed, and she had laughed. Tonight (she stirred vinegar and sugar into the mayonnaise, a few spangles dropping), she’d tell their father (she mixed the salad briskly, set a plate on top of the bowl to cover it), who would not laugh as the baby had, he nearly immune to her excitements by now, within his own life, his own misplaced selves, no doubt, but they rarely had company that wasn’t family, and she’d have to ask him to postpone the Saturday morning trip to the dump with the boys, and he wouldn’t mind: they were, five children later, still a pair. But now (thinking distantly of sandwiches or something fancier, more distantly of whether O’Connell had been pleasant or otherwise at the wedding reception so long ago), crossing the kitchen again and putting the salad in the refrigerator, unwilling to let the excitement fade, she said, “You remember I’ve told you about my old friend Theresa O’Connell I knew in college?”

Long long ago, when their mother was a child, her father taught her to play the violin, because he himself was a fiddler, as well as a dairy farmer and the town’s milkman. The children knew this story, how she had practiced even when her arms ached from holding the violin and bow, and how it had been worth it, because her father had been proud and because in high school she had earned the first chair in orchestra. They had never heard their mother play the violin and they never would, and there was a story for that, too.

She had gone to college five hundred miles away from home with a music scholarship, and there, after a year of hard work, she had been allowed to join a string quartet, as second violin. Theresa O’Connell had been first violin (and funny, with long reddish hair in a braid down her back), and Karen Rutkowski had been viola (and gentle, wore glasses and knew five languages), and Leslie Johnson had been cello (a heavy girl with such a pretty face, and an orphan); the four of them had become great friends, and, like their teacher, had always called each other by their last names. Their teacher was Dr. Susan Fletcher, and she was ambitious for them, and took them all once to a concert in Carnegie Hall in New York City. Dr. Fletcher said that night that if they worked very hard and wanted it very much, they might one day play there; Dr. Fletcher herself had once played on that stage, and might have continued to do so, but had chosen a different life, the life of a teacher. At this point in the story their mother usually said, “Oh how I admired her – we were all a little afraid of her, and we all worked very hard, because we wanted her to be proud of us,” and shook her head and smiled, and might sigh before she said, “But life is funny,” because there was another part of the story.

In the spring of her junior year, a week before the conservatory auditions, their mother, fooling around with Rutkowski and O’Connell and Johnson, reached with her left hand for the door of Johnson’s car just as someone was slamming it shut, and it crushed her four fingers. The first joint of her index finger and the first joint of her middle finger had to be amputated, and that was the end of her career as a violinist, whatever that career might have been. She went home (which was here in this town), and her place in the quartet was taken by another girl.

And their mother might have gone back to that college, or another college, and might have continued her studies and become, like Dr. Fletcher, a teacher of music, except that one day soon after the car door, in the doctor’s waiting room with an enormous bandage on her hand, she sat near a young man with an enormous bandage on his foot, and he said, “We’re quite a pair, ain’t we,” and so they got married and the children appeared.

The children knew the story, even though their mother had probably never told it all at once that way to any of them. The pieces came, usually, as lessons, about car doors, about working hard when you didn’t feel like it, about fooling around with your friends, or making your parents and teachers proud, or small accidents, and the story itself was simply part of their life, no different really from other stories – how their father had once gotten lost in the city and the policeman gave him a candy bar, the first he’d ever had; how their grandfather always said he’d go mad if he were trapped in a room with a spider; how every summer when their mother was little her aunt sent a package containing a tin bucket and shovel for each of the children; how a little boy at a birthday party long long ago had gotten sick on the stairs because he was afraid of thunder.

Some bits of these stories were vivid for the children. Each of them had imagined the enormous bandages as rather like giant versions of the cotton swabs their mother used to clean out their ears (but none of them had imagined their parents’ pain); all of them had wished to be rescued by a uniformed policeman and given miraculous candy (but not to be lost and afraid). Some of them had been unable to resist imagining that the amputation had been done by hatchet, and some of them still imagined the first chair as a sort of throne, decorated with flowers and ribbons, and a string quartet as involving chairs that were tied together in some complicated way. They half dreamt Carnegie Hall like the corridors at school but full of people playing instruments, and at the far end an alternative grandfather (like the grandfathers in books, not like their own, trembly and smelly) standing on a stage and playing the fiddle while people danced and shouted with cows along the edges. Perhaps all of them had imagined the children appearing as the stars did on summer nights when they played out late, one (Jeannie) and then several almost at once (Ricky and Mark, and Sandra), and then one more (the baby). All of them believed the stories only as they believed their parents had ever been children or had parents of their own, which is to say, rather as they believed in Cinderella, or Hansel and Gretel, or even Jesus, which is to say, not really.

Their mother crossed the kitchen again, saying, “Well, Theresa O’Connell called today,” and folded the carrot peels and ends neatly into a newspaper bundle, “and tomorrow she’s coming for lunch and a short visit, and you’ll all get to meet her,” and dropped the bundle into the trash and turned on the water to rinse her hands.

Ricky and Mark only paused in their murmuring talk of the dugout canoe they imagined they could make, and sweet Sandra waited only a moment before eating the next of the raisins she’d lined up and saved for last because they were the best part, and Jeannie went on scowling.

They knew nothing of Morrison, any more than they knew anything of Barbara, which was who she had been before she met O’Connell and Rutkowski and Johnson, or of Barb, which was who their father slept with. And their mother’s story was, after all, over: the ending came with their own appearance, in which they also didn’t exactly believe, since, despite the proof of the baby, each of them surely had always been here, and would always be.

Their mother, who certainly didn’t expect them to share her excitement, still regretted that they did not, that no one did, or really could (spangles dropping now like tears), went on with her work. She said, “I expect you all to behave like civilized people who have heard of manners, instead of like a tribe of wild Indians.”

Ricky bounced up then and hopped and put his hand to his mouth to whoop, but then Mark said, “What about the dump?” so Ricky stopped and said, “Yeah – ta da dump, ta da dump, ta da dump dump dump!” and danced to that instead.

“You’ll go on Sunday, I imagine,” their mother said. “That’s up to your father. And there will be no toys in the living room, no backpacks in the kitchen. Girls will have baths tonight, boys in the morning, and I expect you to stay clean.”

“Will I wear a dress?” Sandra said.

Their mother smiled then, and said, “Why, I think that would be nice – you could wear your yellow dress, how would that be?”

But Jeannie, who had burrowed deep into her recognition of the essential unfairness of being the only person in middle school who had to walk a crowd of little kids home and so could never saunter off with other girls (normal people) and know what they talked about, and so never be alerted until too late (this had happened today) that if somebody offered you a piece of gum it meant your breath stank, or (this had happened yesterday) that nobody wore pink sweaters except babies, or (this had happened on Wednesday) that beaver had become a mysteriously dirty word – things that nobody in this kitchen could know the importance of, any more than they knew not to spit milk all over the table or throw sponges or use plates instead of plastic wrap – Jeannie muttered, “Who cares?”

For the least second, their mother considered pretending she hadn’t heard.

“Well, your highness, I care, and I’d recommend you get your attitude under control,” she said. “You’ll be helping me get this place presentable.”

“I have homework,” Jeannie said.

“I’m sure you do,” their mother said.

“Honestly!” Jeannie said, and in her hurry to make a dramatic exit she stood too fast and her chair crashed back, scaring the baby, who howled, and delighting Ricky and breaking Sandra’s heart, because their mother yelled, “Young lady – !” and Jeannie cried, and when their father got home, before he had a chance to get his work boots off and long before their mother had a chance to tell him about O’Connell, Mark said, “Jeannie got sent to her room for backtalk.”

So it was at the supper table, all of them feeling chastened (because Mark had been scolded for tattling, and all of them had been told that just once they could consider that their father worked very hard to put a roof over their heads and he didn’t need all this uproar as soon as he walked in the door, and Jeannie had been made to apologize), as the plate of hamburgers and the bowl of carrot salad and the dish of fried potatoes went around, that their father said, “Well. Anything good happen today?” and the spangles came back at least as far as their mother’s memory, and she said, again, that Theresa O’Connell, out of the blue, was coming to lunch tomorrow. The children heard it as if for the first time, maybe because they were quiet, or maybe because it wasn’t being said to them but to their father.

“Theresa O’Connell,” he said. “That the redhead? Danced the limbo at the wedding?”

“That’s the one,” their mother said.

“We can stand her if she can stand us,” he said.

Ricky said, “Will she bring presents?”

“Oh, I doubt it,” their mother said. “I think this was a sort of last minute thing.”

“Probably an elephant,” their father said. “Apiece.”

“Oh,” their mother said. “Use your napkin, Mark, not your arm.”

“Is she married?” their father said.

“That’s all the potatoes there are,” their mother said. “No, not at the moment – and you all know, don’t you,” shaking the salad spoon at the children, “not to ask her questions like that?”

“Is she pretty?” Sandra said.

Their mother looked at the wall. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “I’d say she’s pretty. Or she was back then. I haven’t seen her since our wedding. Cute, maybe – not beautiful, but yes, probably pretty is about right.”

“Does she have kids?” Mark said.

“Dozens,” their father said.

“For heaven’s sake,” their mother said. “No, she doesn’t.”

“Can I sing her my song?” Sandra said.

Their mother smiled. “I think that would be very nice,” she said. “I think O’Connell would like that very much.”

“Is that her name – O’Connell?” Ricky said.

“Ms. O’Connell,” their mother said. “Three more bites, Sandra.”

“Is she really old?” Ricky said.

“She’s my age,” their mother said.

Their father didn’t say anything.

“Oh, stop it,” their mother said, laughing, and that was how they knew (although they didn’t know that that was how they knew) that everything was almost all right again (but because Jeannie hadn’t said anything after I apologize, and was sitting up so straight, not quite everything was quite all the way right yet), so Sandra said, “I bet she’ll wear big sunglasses,” and Ricky said, “I bet she’ll drive a tractor,” and “No – a motorcycle – brrrm brrrm!” Mark said, and twisting the imagined handlebars to rev the motor he knocked over his milk, which he’d been saving to drink with his dessert, which was going to be cake (he’d seen it), and dodging the spill it was Mark himself whose chair tipped and clattered backwards this time.

For her conservatory audition, Morrison had felt confident about the required pieces, the unaccompanied Bach, the dear Mozart and Brahms, the major and minor scales, and now, long after, when she woke in panic from dreams of a missing bow, a locked practice room, a score written in unreadable notation, she knew they were only anxiety dreams, and comforted herself that these were anxieties she no longer needed. But she had never been satisfied with the Bartok, her own chosen piece for the audition, and so it was the problem with the Bartok that would sometimes rise, as it did this night, at the edge of sleep, and she would find herself again in the swirling argument about how, exactly, she was failing to move from the mournful yearning to its rejection in the first part of the first movement. She would advise herself and object to the advice, around and around, with other voices – Dr. Fletcher’s (“It’s not sentimental, Morrison – clean it up”), her father’s (“Practice – that’s all you need”), a review she’d once read (“Unfortunately, the violin was lackluster in the first movement ...”) – chiming in, the problem insoluble and inescapable, until the frustration flung her back to waking, and to the truth of the matter: She could not get up and try it again.

But tonight, as the Bartok came up again, through the choice of earrings for tomorrow, and her suspicion about why Jeannie was so easily upset lately, past a flickering concern that O’Connell might have turned vegetarian and a debate about radishes, the least scrap of her morning’s certainty came up with it, and she knew with complete clarity that the solution lay neither in the bowing nor the fingering, but in her body, in how she stood: she must move her torso slightly to the right. Knowing that, and weary from having steamed and boned two chickens after putting the children to bed, and feeling, distantly, the itching in her lost fingertips that she indulged as a memory of strings beneath them, she slept, and if she dreamed the dreams did not disturb her.

By eleven-thirty the next day, the house was as presentable as it could be, given that it was an old house and there were five children, and the children were all washed and dressed and as presentable as they could be, given that their mother kept wondering if Morrison had cared so much about presentability, and given that the baby was teething and so could not be made to stop drooling, and that the yellow dress was still a little too big for Sandra, and Ricky had hair that would not lie down and Mark was so skinny his shirt would not stay tucked in, while Jeannie was determined to disassociate herself utterly and be thereby unembarrassable. The chicken salads (curried for the grownups, plain for the children) were chilling, the table set, and their father had surprised them all by going across the road to Mrs. Collins and asking if he could pick a bunch of her tulips for the table.

O’Connell arrived, in a smallish grayish car.

Here she came.

Outrageous, the others in the quartet had called her, Flamboyant their mother had said, but nothing had prepared the children for O’Connell herself. Their mother opened the door and in came O’Connell, flinging back her cloak and hugging their mother, and “Oh, look at you!” she said, with her hands on their mother’s shoulders, and “Look at you,” their mother said, so the children looked, but O’Connell turned with a jangle of bracelets (Jeannie tried to see how many) to their father who had his hand out to take her cloak and said, “And here is the lord of the manor – even more handsome without his tuxedo!” and took his hand between both of her own (there seemed to be shimmering flecks in her dark nail polish) but said, “How silly!” and stood up on her toes and kissed his cheek which turned with the rest of his face nearly the reddish purple of the thing (longer and looser than a shirt, shorter than a dress) O’Connell was wearing yet he was smiling too, and then she turned (her long golden earrings swaying) to Sandra in her yellow dress and said, “Why, it’s Princess Daffodil! Your Highness,” and curtsied to her, so Sandra (who did not smile, so astounded and shy) curtsied back, while Ricky tried to get behind Mark who was trying to get behind Ricky (curious but terrified of being, like their father, kissed), but she turned next to the baby who sat stupefied beside the couch (suddenly revealed to Jeannie as a shabby couch, despite the clean plaid bedspread tucked in neatly) and said, “And you, m’lady, must be the Princess of the Pea!” and the boys collapsed into one another, their faces as red as their father’s with trying to hold in the laughter that came spritzing out, and she turned on them sternly and said, “That’s spelled pee ee ay,” and they were helpless, so she met Jeannie’s eyes and said, “Boys,” and shook her head and rolled her eyes, “if only it weren’t illegal, we could stuff ‘em in a sack,” so surprising that Jeannie smiled, but only a little, in spite of herself.

“Well, have a seat – here, let me take your wrap,” their mother said, and took it to the hall closet, and all of them except Sandra sat down, O’Connell in their mother’s chair, their father (still smiling) in his chair, Jeannie on the piano bench, and then their mother and the boys and the baby on the couch, and Sandra lingered, hovered, beside O’Connell. “So what have you been up to,” their mother said, “since your last Christmas card? Which, by the way, I got before Easter.”

O’Connell brushed her hand across the top of her hair, which was not a long braid at all but short spikes like a rock star, though it was dark reddish, and tucked her feet (she seemed to be wearing ballet slippers) up under her in their mother’s chair, and said, “Well, you know that Susan’s finally retiring, right?”

“Su – oh, Dr. Fletcher,” their mother said. “I didn’t know.” Ricky poked Mark in the thigh and their mother put her hand on his arm.

“About time – I mean, music moves, and she just wouldn’t change anything, like Bartok was the last thing that ever happened. So she’s retiring, and they’ve offered me the job, but,” she made a face, “you know, I’m not sure I want to be tied down. I mean, teaching’s fine, it’s secure and all that, and God knows I could use a steady income, but boring – !”

Their mother nodded, stroking the baby’s head, and said, “When do you have to tell them?”

“Fifteenth of April – tax day and decision time.”

Mark knocked his knee against Ricky’s: nobody was going to tell O’Connell not to put her feet on the furniture! Ricky knocked back; their mother squeezed his arm. “What about this audition?” their mother said.

“Oh, it’s just a summer gig – one of those concerts-under-the-stars things, I’m betting lots of Beethoven and Bach, like that one we did that year on Long Island? This one’s up in Camden.”

“That’s a far drive all alone,” their father said. The smudge of lipstick was still on his cheek.

“Oh, I like driving,” she said. “I’m used to it – I get to sing along with the radio, stop when I want to – oh, remember that time we drove to Chicago? To see Rutkowski’s boyfriend?”

Their mother smiled, nodded. “The one with the nine sisters.”

“We sang the whole way, the four of us – terrible singers!” She laughed. “And terrible songs, to boot.”

“‘Queen of Hearts,’” their mother said, and O’Connell laughed again, and said, “That was you!”

Long ago, when their mother was Morrison, she had been the queen of hearts, which is to say, all the guys had been in love with her, and she’d never cared one whit, never even believed it, even when a prince proposed to her – oh, yes! an actual prince! But what she loved was music, and so she showed him the door. The children, of course, had never heard this story, nor the story of how she and O’Connell were asked to play for a wedding in the city, and they said they couldn’t do it, as they had no transportation. But the groom had heard the quartet, and was determined to have them as a duet (“Because it was a wedding, so he wanted two, see?” O’Connell said), and he hired a driver to come the whole long way to get them, and paid for them to stay in a swanky hotel, where after the wedding and everything was over they fixed themselves drinks from the little bar in the room, and well after midnight took themselves out onto the balcony and played in their nightgowns to the whole sleeping city, and when they stopped, applause came up from the street ten stories below. They’d never heard the story of how Morrison had marched into the office of the Dean of Music and made him keep the heat on in the practice rooms, or how she brought the old man who fiddled for quarters near the train station in to hear Perlman’s concert, and after that everybody pitched in and a suit was found for the old fiddler and eternal season tickets provided for him.

There was another story about nightgowns, O’Connell said, but she wouldn’t tell it, and their mother said there was another story about the practice rooms, but she wouldn’t tell that either, and they both laughed, and after they talked about O’Connell’s audition pieces, and a little about Rutkowski (who was in Germany) and about Johnson (who taught high school band now and had two sons), their mother said, “Well – you must be starving!” and got up from the couch and handed the baby over to their father and went into the kitchen, and O’Connell unfolded herself from their mother’s chair and followed her.

Which Morrison hadn’t expected, and for an instant, with O’Connell in her kitchen, she couldn’t remember her plan for putting the lunch on the table, couldn’t think how to begin.

“Pretty flowers,” O’Connell said.

“Aren’t they?” And seeing them, remembering her husband bringing them in, brought her back. She opened the refrigerator, took out the separated lettuce leaves and the first bowl of chicken salad.

“You shouldn’t have gone to such trouble,” O’Connell said.

“It’s not much,” she said, arranging the lettuce on the plates. “Not near as hard as the Bad Boyfriend casserole – remember that? Three kinds of beans?”

They laughed, and O’Connell said, “And what was that – yeah, Graveyard Stew.”

“Bread and hot milk? The kids love it.”

“Actually, I still have that sometimes, after performances – that I can do.”

“You don’t cook?”

“Never learned – never had the time, I guess. Or the inclination. You always were the domestic one,” O’Connell said, looking out the window, fiddling with her earrings.

To the children and their father, who couldn’t help listening, it sounded like the ordinary reminiscing of two women who had been friends long ago. They didn’t see how carefully Morrison closed the silverware drawer.

“Was I?” she said. “I thought that was Rutkowski – she was the one who cleaned.”

“No, no – she was the brilliant one. This looks great!”

“So what was Johnson, then?”

“Most likely to do Music Education – and she did.”

They couldn’t see, from where they sat rather quietly in the living room, how O’Connell folded her arms or how their mother glanced up at her from slicing bread, but something made the children uneasy, something made their father tickle the baby just then.

“And so you’d be – ?”

“Wild and crazy, I guess – that was the only spot left. I mean, after your poor hand.”

“So it’s fate, huh?”

“Well, not really fate – I mean, we are who we are, right?”

“Well. I hope you like curry,” their mother said.

“I love curry – you’re really spectacular at all this, you know.”

“Why thank you,” their mother said, and then she was back at the doorway to the living room, and she said, “Okay – let’s eat!” and even then the children followed their father into the kitchen without anyone pushing anyone or bumping into anything.

Their father put the baby in the high chair, and as they sat down to lunch, a bit crowded around the kitchen table because of the extra person, and the table itself all different with flowers on it and a tablecloth and dishes they didn’t recognize, and O’Connell said to their father, “This is such a roomy house – my whole apartment would fit into this kitchen!” and their father told how he’d mostly inherited it from his grandparents, they liked O’Connell less than they had before. For that twenty minutes of lunchtime, they were the civilized-seeming children their mother had instructed them to be, no one fell off a chair or spilled anything or played with the food or made rude noises, and even the baby did not drop any of her peas or carrots on the floor: O’Connell hadn’t brought presents, had no children, drove an ordinary car, had kissed their father, had not given anyone a chance to sing, was too old to be playing dress-up and looked ridiculous.

Their mother had picked up the emptied plates and was carrying them to the sink when their father said, “So you figure you’ll go up Route 1?”

O’Connell nodded, but she grinned and glanced over her shoulder at their mother, and then she leaned toward their father and she said, “You know, I was thinking about what you said – about what a long drive it’ll be all alone? And I was thinking I ought to snatch Morrison away for a couple days. Take her right along with me.”

They had been quiet, but now they were still, in an echoing stillness that filled the kitchen.

There sat the boys, who hadn’t heard the question but knew a dare when they heard one and had never heard anyone dare their mother before; and there sat Sandra, who had heard the question and believed her mother would leave with this strange woman and never come back; and there sat Jeannie, who an hour ago had imagined riding away with O’Connell herself but now knew that a thing like Only babies wear pink sweaters had just been said to her mother; and there sat their father, trying not to believe that this had been planned and he not told; and there sat the baby, staring at the stillness.

There at the sink, with her back to all of them, their mother went rigid. She heard within the stillness that O’Connell – O’Connell! – was insisting that a choice must be made, between her old free self and this self, accusing her, really, of having already made that choice: O’Connell was denying, as if it were a joke, with a grin (Morrison didn’t need to turn and look: she knew that face), yesterday’s dancing joy.

“I’ve never been to Maine before,” O’Connell said. “She could be my navigator – wouldn’t it be fun, Morrison? Like old times!”

With the water running over the plates, the idea of posture came to Morrison, like a distant memory: something about a change in expression, in tone, that would come with a motion of her torso. The idea resolved something, she remembered.

But she had to deal with O’Connell now. O’Connell needed her bluff called: she no more wanted Morrison to come with her than she wanted to be a teacher. So “Sure,” Morrison said. She dried her hands, picked up the stack of dessert plates. And why should she be surprised? O’Connell had always been like this, secretly mean, the competitive one. “I’ll get my things together.” O’Connell, who’d never made a choice in her life, sashaying in here with her domestic, as if everybody was like her, just one person. Morrison laughed, and turned back to the table, where they all sat.

Sandra gave a sob, so “Crybaby,” Jeannie muttered, and Mark poked her in the side and murmured “Meanie,” so Jeannie elbowed him, said “Mind your own business,” so “See?” Mark said, but “Tattletale,” Jeannie whispered, so Ricky sang out, “Tattle-tail, tattle-tail, hanging by a bull’s tail!” and Mark joined in, “When the bull begins to pee, Jeannie has a cup of tea!” so Jeannie smacked him but he dodged, twitching the tablecloth just enough that the vase of tulips tilted and their father reached out to steady it but Ricky smacked Jeannie’s smacking hand, “When the bull begins to poop,” and her empty glass went spinning off the table, bounced once before it broke, and their father thundered “Enough!”

Their mother set the stack of plates on the table. She was smiling. “It would be loads and loads of fun,” she said. “Like old times,” she said. She returned to the counter and brought the pie to the table.

The children curled back in their chairs.

O’Connell and the baby just stared.

Their mother stood there at the table as if at attention, wearing (they noticed now for the first time) earrings and lipstick, her left hand in a loose fist behind her back. “I should be ready,” she said, and picked up the pie knife in her right hand, “in about,” she steadied the pie plate with her left hand, “oh, eighteen years,” she said, and she made the first cut in the pie. And then she leaned ever so slightly to her right.

If, with that motion of her torso, she heard again the Bartok, felt the shift from mourning to resolute rejection, and knew she was right, what was that to any of them?

She laughed again, a laugh of triumph they’d never heard before.

O’Connell didn’t laugh and their father didn’t laugh, but, cautiously, the children took breaths, and sat up again in their chairs. “Or thereabouts,” their mother said, and slid a slice of pie onto a plate, and smiled down at it. “Somebody,” she said, “needs to sweep up that glass.”

Jeannie stood, carefully. She got the broom and swept. When Jeannie had dumped the glass into the trash, washed her hands, and come back to the table, their mother handed the first plate of pie to O’Connell. “Coffee?” she said.

“So that was O’Connell,” their father said, when she had driven away and their mother had come back in from where she’d waved goodbye from the porch and closed the door, and their mother said, “It certainly was,” (she rubbed her thumb against his cheek and the red smudge was gone) “from beginning to end,” and their father looked around (she took the baby from Jeannie) and said, “Still early – we got time to get to the dump,” so Ricky yelled, “Shotgun!” as Mark charged after their father toward the back door (“Change your clothes!” she called) so they ran back and up the stairs (she unhooked her earrings before the baby could grab them and slipped them into her pocket) but Sandra said, “I didn’t get to sing,” (but she only shook her head no and smiled, touched the pretty collar) for Jeannie was saying, “She was the one who slammed the door, right? The car door?” yet their mother just shrugged (“You’re wetter than sop,” she said to the baby), and carried her up the stairs to change her, and then the boys came bumping and squabbling down and Jeannie huffed off to her room (she had so hoped to purely hate O’Connell) and only Sandra was left in the living room, where (although she did make a small curtsy to her reflection in the front door) it was almost as if O’Connell had never been there.

Long after the dump and supper and putting the kitchen back to rights, after their mother had gotten them all to bed and their father lay waiting for her, she stood for a long moment on the back porch in her nightgown, feeling the breeze lift it around her, and she watched there as the stars appeared, one, then several together, and one more, and then the sky filled with them, like a moment of far-off applause and at the selfsame moment like the children’s explosion at lunch, with the broken glass spangling the floor. She smiled, remembering O’Connell’s frightened face when the glass went flying and Henry shouted Enough, and then she went in and through the dark house and up the stairs, where everything was for her, for now.