Afterwards, of course--she heard them talking--they all said it was her fault. She was naïve, uninformed—how could anyone in a metropolitan area be so oblivious! She was trusting to the point of lunacy, no-one could afford to trust like that anymore. She was immature, a woman like her shouldn’t have a child of her own, if that’s what she intended to do with it. Lose her own baby, they meant, in a matter of a few hours, as if she didn’t have two eyes herself to watch over it, two ears to hear, two legs to run after it. In the suburbs of Washington DC no less—two steps from the murder capital of the world. That too only two months after all the sniper attacks—even if the culprits had been apprehended, it just went to show how easily such a rampage could happen here inside the Beltway. She was just plain irresponsible, there was no getting around it. In a matter of a few hours she was demoted from ingenue immigrant to thoughtless resident, the kind that belonged in the ranks of the unschooled, candidate for a homeless shelter, careless and callous. Sumita cringed each time she overheard the neighbors talking (they froze their chatter when she approached, which didn’t help one bit) or saw another letter to the editor or an op-ed on the subject in Arlington’s local Gazette. It was all true. They were all right. It was all her fault. She was surely to blame. But how was she to know? And wasn’t this precisely the kind of thing people said afterward? Would they have known?
Even her husband, mild-mannered, even-keeled, as friendly and trusting as she was—he was after all from the same city in India, the same extended family— said it was plain as daylight when he heard. He would have known. They all would have known. There was nothing mysterious here. To anyone who was educated, aware, literate, he stressed, it was extremely clear. What did that make her? Foolish, he implied, as inept as the illiterate, as desperate as the unaware. He wasn’t rescuing her. He wasn’t excusing her. He was not an NIH researcher picking apart the brain cells of beagles injected with anxiety-inducing drugs every day for nothing. Every day in the lab, staring into microscopes, graphing results, computing counts, testing responses, he was using his brain and his training for the greater good. She was at home all day with the baby. Shouldn’t she be using hers? (But that was just it, the whole thing had happened because she was using her training, and nobody could see it.) How much brain anyhow did it take to ensure your baby was safe? (Not much, he thought, clearly, but then he never needed to find out for himself. She was the babysitter in the house.) A house filled with plaster dust and the sound of power tools. But just because a little construction was going on in the back where their rotted wall was being fixed, just because workers were in and out all day, climbing up on scaffolding,banging, cursing, disrupting, didn’t mean her job was somehow made more difficult, did it? ?
But look at what had happened. Look at what she had done. Look at what her childish dependence on other people had spawned: consequences. Publicity. Cameras. Lights. His face on television, pinched, distraught, out of control as he wept. He had never intended to break down in front of all these people, but the horrible loss of his one-year-old son, an infinitely vulnerable baby, pushed him to it. He had shaken her on camera. Taken her by the shoulders, shouted. Her face blank when they played it back, white in the glare of the lights, eyes stricken. She had said nothing as he shook her. Reporters had pulled him back. Camera-men admonished him. There now, take it easy sir, the lady’s had a shock you can tell.
But he couldn’t tell. He had come home to the flashing lights of police cars, a fire truck, an ambulance, policemen stopping him as he got out of his car, a crowd of Washington reporters on his front step. The empty carriage in the yard. The reporters were all there, notebooks in hand, cameras raised high, when he accosted her, dazed as she rose from her seat on the front step. What have you done with my son, he shouted, high pitch of panic in his voice, and they had it all on tape. They played it on the six o’ clock news on Fox and later at eight, so the anchors turned to each other off-camera and shook their heads, that’s one marriage on the skids, anyone can tell.
I was distracted, she wanted to say. I was full of ideas suddenly. I was going to change my life. But a mike pushed under her chin and a thousand watts of light amplifying the natural winter dusk at four, clumps of freezing snow still scattered in the yard glinting up at her, froze the voice in her throat. She wasn’t aware she was on television, live. She had noticed the irony earlier, reporters parking all the way down their tree-lined street, carrying notebooks and mikes as they approached her, she the subject, not the journalist. She was more used to asking questions herself, she wanted to say. She was trained in the art of the interview. She was one of them. Couldn’t they tell?
But Sumita had never really worked as a journalist. She was conscious of that, too, as they peppered her with questions: When did it happen? What did you see? How long had you left him alone? They were not prepared for her silence, her refusal to speak. She had gestured, mumbled, tapered off. She went inside the house to call her husband. She came back outside, still in her teal-blue sweatshirt, and sat on the front step, staring at them as if she couldn’t see them. They were not to know what she was thinking. I was a journalist this afternoon, she wanted to say, that’s how it all happened.
Sumita’s eight-month journalism diploma had been acquired from a college in Madras. Although her parents believed a girl’s body was sacred while a boy’s only so-so, they wished to indulge her educational aspirations only up till her B. Sc. Chemistry, setting her on the route to marriage and motherhood shortly thereafter, while her brother Sumit could go on to do his post-graduate studies in the States after his basic degree in electrical engineering.
But the right Groom with a Green Card—Ph.D in science (like her father, a professor of Chemistry at Madras Christian College), employed in the US (unlike her father but a worthy aspiration for these days), under 35 (her father had married late, at 33, after all)—proved hard to find, and so they indulged her a little further when she mentioned the new journalism diploma at St. Patrick’s College which was close-by. They never took it seriously and they didn’t expect Sumita to either, which she didn’t, then, because she knew where she was headed. Marriage, a visa, a plane ride, and a new life in the US.
But things changed once the class got underway. Things rubbed off. Everyone in the class but Sumita expected to work for newspapers or radio or television one day, and their pious dedication to their calling began to operate first as secret then as blatant reproof. Halfway through the program, she stopped dressing up for college and began to emulate the studious, focused, word-crazed diligence of her peers. She began vying for the teacher’s notice. She interviewed everyone she met, even prospective Grooms, who trickled in to the house every now and then, and she worked and re-worked her hand-in articles till late at night.
Her parents could not help but notice, in a hapless, helpless way, because nothing they said had the desired effect of stopping their suddenly delusional daughter. All of a sudden she was watching the world news on Doordarshan at all hours, the news on Star TV, the news on BBC, the news on CNN. She was visiting libraries, and she was staying up reading. She was also losing interest in getting married, the greater crime in their eyes, because a girl should act properly discreet in preparation for this momentous occurrence and Sumita was no longer exhibiting signs of discretion. She was in fact bringing some of her classmates home for tea or lunch on Saturdays, and some of these were boys, a very embarrassing thing for the family indeed. Fortunately for one and all, the right Groom, the long-overlooked second cousin, the best bet in such a Groom-dry situation, made his arrival in their midst just before Sumita’s diploma ended. It was a very nicely timed arrival, for now she could both finish her exams and get married.
The Groom, who at 34 only narrowly squeaked into the range of groom-qualifications, flew in all the way from Bethesda Maryland—where he worked at the prestigious NIH, doing nationally-funded research on panic attacks—just to see Sumita, whom he had known years ago when she was 7 and he was 19, because he had heard she was now 23 and fair, not to mention being talented in the culinary arts, always a stellar asset. This flying in was much remarked-on, and procured him high points in the parents’ favor. Also remarked on was the work he was working on, for the American medical establishment. Sumita unfortunately did not appear either impressed or with intent to impress. She dawdled at the library and came home late the evening he came to see her, and although she was indeed 23 and fair as presented, she didn’t appear capable of an intelligent response when questioned, and was in fact caught gazing vacuously at her feet at various points in the evening.
Regardless, she filled the modest qualifications the Groom’s family had set for the Bride (23 to 25, fair, knows how to cook, same-caste, horoscope-should-match), and after the astrologer signaled his consent, the engagement and the wedding-day were both arranged before the end of the week. No-one paused to ask why the Groom, being so much older, was not married yet, a question that would surely have been asked of the girl, if she were the one in her mid-thirties. Instead there appeared to be a general air of relief among Sumita’s extended family, that the Groom, with his excellent qualifications, had been preserved by the gods for this surely blessed nuptial.
Sumita verbally protested, and cried into her pillow at night, but her parents put it all down to pre-marital jitters and rushed full-scale into plans for the wedding. Sumita could not fully express therefore her new desire, to be a journalist, for no-one was listening to her. In fact, her relatives laughed gaily when she made mention of journalism. There will be plenty of time for that when you are married, they said, and they certainly meant it, but it only served to confuse Sumita, because she knew they all wanted her to stay at home and look after the children when she was married.
And that in fact is what happened. Sumita became pregnant two months after the marriage and spent the time fixing up the new house they bought in Arlington, buying bright orange chiffon for curtains at the Indian saree store on Lee Highway, sewing valances and tablecloths while she watched CNN and Oprah, Pledging the furniture and cooking mysore pak and peda while listening to country music and NPR. When the child was born, she took care of it. Both her parents and the Groom’s flew up that year to visit. There was no question of her working, thinking of going to work, or preparing to work. To start with, there was the question of the visa. She was waiting for her green card. There was no mention by anyone of her continuing to pursue journalism, even as a hobby.
Once, when Sumita’s in-laws were visiting, there was a documentary on PBS about how a young Mexican-American woman went to school at Berkeley after her children were born and in two years became a reporter for CNN. Sumita, who had been changing the baby’s diapers on the table while they watched, said I knew it was possible, I knew you can get back to becoming a journalist anytime, and instantly there was an embarrassed silence in the room, all the more marked because everyone had been chattering about somebody’s wedding arrangements despite the TV being on and the baby screaming. Clearly her remark had not been lost. But it was certainly deplored. Mr. Ganesan cleared his throat and looked quickly back at the TV. Mrs. Ganesan viewed her frozen-faced son Sudhir’s discomfort and said, to distract Sumita, You remember, you’re supposed to put powder on the baby’s bottom first? and Sumita frowned, and said Oh dear! and realized instantly she had fastened the child’s new clothing (lemon Oshkosh overalls) without fastening the diaper first and she had certainly not remembered powder for the baby’s bottom. She looked around for the baby-powder and Mrs. Ganesan sighed, watching her, and Sudhir picked up the remote so that by the time she had found the tin (buried under diapers in her diaper bag) he had switched the channel and they were all watching a fleet of gazelle lope across an African plain.
No more was said. Sumita knew enough about this family now to say nothing more, although she kept on thinking quite a bit about the subject, and dreaming sometimes of it, which was why all of it flowered out of her buzzing interior and came to a sudden effervescent head the moment Davey Brickett paused on her front step that morning and began to spill the current reason for his ongoing angst about the world to her.
Sumita stared at the short, stocky man standing before her. Davey Brickett was ginger-haired all over—in his moustache, his tufts of hair framing his balding crown and plastered, straw-like, against his steel-rimmed glasses, the bulk of his forearms just below his rolled-up denim shirt. His pale blue eyes looked hopefully out in a sea of layered refraction through thick bottle-bottom glasses. Sumita stared at him and tried to unravel his accent, a cadenced and drawled southwest Virginian. But everything he said was coming to her as if through an echo in an underground cavern, a split-second after he said it, while her translation filter processed and shakily delivered.
He had once, at nine, hoped to discard his thick glasses when he grew up, when he had heard of long-sightedness afflicting the elderly. It was a prospect he began to welcome in the hope it would prove corrective in his case over time, his myopia meeting the travails of age in a perfect twenty-twenty arc (and freezing at perfection). But at thirty-eight his myopia, astigmatism, and thickly toric lenses had all steadily advanced until now the optometrist apologetically told him it was unfortunate, they were trying their slimmest, but his lenses might just slide out of the frame, you never knew when some unpredictable shock might disturb them, he needed to be careful.
Like his uncle Tommy from whom he had learned his trade, Davey was careful climbing ladders, standing on scaffolding, and hammering nails into wood, but the steady banging and slips on steel steps often made his glasses fall off and the lenses slide out, which meant he used only plastic lenses these days and was used to sliding them back into their miniscule grooves. Life as you imagined it at nine never seemed to show up, although you kept waiting for it to clear the corner and roll into view, as smooth and clean as a new pick-up truck, yellow and shiny with promise.
Davey had seen one of those trucks once at the Ford motor dealers on Clifford in Winchester, right next to where his uncle Tommy worked on a two-story Chinese restaurant build at the Harrison strip mall. Tommy had looked across and said he believed he could get one of those one day. Except he never did, losing his money to one girlfriend after another, sinking it always in drink, paying child support for one son he never saw in Richmond and a daughter who lived with her mother in Leesburg, whom he saw only at Christmas. Chugging away to work every day in his large, beat-up grey pick-up that looked like it might have creaked off a conveyor belt in the 1950s.
Davey never forgot the yellow Ford. He would look for it when he went to hang out with Tommy at work, days when his mother couldn’t get home early after her day shift. Shiny with lacquer and glass, it began to become a concrete symbol for him of everything promised and forever unattainable. Like the hope of his father’s return, or a red bicycle for Christmas, or a trip to Atlantic City, which Tommy swore to include him on.
Each of these, refused, began to make deep holes in him after a while, although he strove, on the surface, to stay unaffected, willing his face not to betray what burned in him. Bright pangs of pain seemed to spread like flame through the soft cloth of his bones just before he went to sleep at night, or early in the morning, sometimes, when he’d just woken and lay in his bed observing the brown tracings of winter trees against the blue crystalline sky. Inside he was soft and papery, as ready as that to flare up in a burning, as ready as that to be extinguished.
After all, his daddy never showed up, having loped off to West Virginia when he was three and his sister six, leaving his mother to fend for herself and them, which she did, in a tangential, threadbare fashion. Thin, a wispy-haired waitress at Joe DiMaggio’s Tavern and Restaurant--Joe D had once stopped in there for a drink, the rumor went, and the tavern changed its name quickly enough from Alice & Marty’s--she sent Davey off at sixteen to “learn the building trade” informally, with his uncle Tommy, when he was in high school.
So his grades suffered, even worse than before, such that the Principal was obliged to say a word to her one night after church, enough to put the fear of God into her and have her check he was at least taking his Vocational Ed classes, especially in architecture and construction. She needed a boy who could earn his keep, and that was that. Book learning was scarcely going to cut it. In her book.
The girl, Jennifer, had already been through several re-incarnations, as a Marshall’s clerk, a cashier at Walmart, a waitress with her mother, an ice-cream girl at the Frosty Cone, and even, one summer, a tour guide at Luray Caverns, and ended by taking typing classes and working at the dentist’s office, over on Cherry Hill. It was a great relief to one and all. She had finished high school despite carrying Percival that last year. Poor Percy, born prematurely in the middle of winter, seven months old, and unable to breathe, even with the respirator. He died in the hospital the same day.
Davey had been in the room when they brought the baby in to Jennifer, all wrapped in a white blanket, and she held the poor wrinkled thing in her arms and wept. He had felt protective then, and helpless, toward her, and toward the stillness of his dead nephew. It was the same way he felt toward his mother each time one of her many boyfriends left her, the same way he would feel about every woman in his life for years afterward. It was a feeling he could do nothing with. It welled up around him like a flood, a frustrating mixture of emotions that left him patting shoulders and offering tissues, but speechless.
By the age of eighteen he had developed a padding of simulated cynicism to go with it, a veneer of bravado he had picked up mostly from his uncle Tommy, but also from spending his days with Tommy’s co-workers. They were other builders, carpenters, drywallers, painters, and roofers, all of whose fates, it seemed, lay in getting “mixed-up” with the wrong kind of women who left them at a moment’s whim—whether they had children together or not—and who then proceeded to haunt their destinies with further evidence of female flightiness. Stay orders, child support, custody battles, paternity suits, withdrawal of visitation rights, you name it.
Who needs that, Tommy would say, and Davey Brickett would echo it, more than twenty years later. Who needs that kind of lovin’? Or, You give a woman what she wants, look what you gits back, or, There ain’t no telling what’s next, son, ain’t no telling what’s round the corner from where you sit. All of it seeped into Davey like rainwater loaded with lime, and grew edifices there of resignation, not unlike the stalagmites and stalactites you found all over the place here in the limestone country at the foot of the Shenandoah hills.
As a grown man, Davey never seemed to know how to treat women, because no-one around him seemed to know how although he knew they were worthy of respect—no-one else could make frilly curtains or bake a peach pie or make fresh cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving like a woman could. In his household, his mother and sister had unfailingly put supper on the table. He never had to cook, and at twenty-one, when he moved in with his first girlfriend, Marylou Jenkins, who was thirty-two then and divorced twice with a little boy of her own and a mane of store-changed ash-blonde hair which was, he thought, what made her so attractive, he was thankful she had all the womanly traits he knew now to associate with women. She sewed her own clothes, in addition to tablecloths and curtains, and baked a mean shepherd’s pie in addition to always making him a hot breakfast, and he was properly appreciative.
But Marylou didn’t stay. She left when Tim Herrick started his own hardware store. She said she was the kind of woman who appreciated entrepreneurship in a man, and she sure had been waiting a long time, but she didn’t see none in Davey yet, years though it had been. Two years was what she’d meant, two lousy years, thought Davey, and he’d been looking forward to many more, with hot meals at night and breakfast on the table, but it was not to be. She was going to run after Tim of the lanky frame and distracted look, Tim who loved his key-cutting machine and his stacks of two-by-fours much more than he ever would Marylou Jenkins. Well, let her, he thought, she’d find out soon enough what she’d thrown away for good. But he felt forlorn, and pushed his glasses up his nose, and found he couldn’t say anything.
He helped her pack, and he drove the boy to school for days afterward, going by to Tim’s house on Walnut to pick him up, because she worked too early to take him, and so did Tim. It was a sorry state of affairs all around, and life picked up only two weeks later when he met Shannon, a junior at a New England school who was hiking in the Shenandoah hills that summer. Later came Lesley, and Maureen, and Priscilla, and after that Katey and Tina, and Melissa, and Wendy and Amy, and it wasn’t that hard to keep them all straight in the memory, he tried to tell Sumita, who just kept staring at him at first, when he started talking (as if she couldn’t understand, and he was trying to keep his English plain, too, so she could), he knew most of them from high school, or they just worked nearby, everyone knew everyone in Winchester. In between, there were his children.
Sumita stared hard and frowned because she was still mentally engaged in unravelling his accent. She was not prepared for this conversation. It was cold, although the sun was out, and the snow on the grass was melting. Cold, although she was in her bright teal-blue sweatshirt with the inner fleece lining and padded gloves. She had tried to get away from the banging. She had put the child in its red fleece jacket with the hood and pushed the carriage out the door. She had lowered the child in among the blankets and white emergency towel. She had raised the carriage hood. She was just about to wheel the carriage down the walk and out to the street when Davey appeared.
Davey saw a young, brown, nervous foreigner with a baby. He’d met her earlier, with her foreigner husband. She had looked young, and he liked young women. The foreignness didn’t matter so much then. They were safe. Safer than the older ones, much-married, multiply-divorced. Sumita saw a ginger-haired, blue-eyed, thickly-spectacled quite-American-looking builder approach. Was he the foreman? The architect? She had seen him earlier, supervising the two Mexicans who had climbed the ladder and knocked the old vinyl siding off, viciously, so bits of it had spiked and flayed the peach dogwood in the back yard. He stood away from them, on top of the orange scaffolding, smoking a cigarette, watching. What did he want?
You going for a walk? Davey was friendly.
Yes, I thought I’d take him out. She almost invited him to come along, just before she remembered he was a stranger, not to mention on duty in their house just then. She paused, not knowing what else to say.
But Davey didn’t need much encouragement. Young womanhood being encouragement enough. Awkward silences from the fairer sex not to be construed as deterrent, in his book. Weather ain’t half bad today, sun being out and all, he said. Still bitter cold, up in the hills. Washington’s warm, but out here you ain’t really in Washington now are you?
Sumita took it all in with an effort. We’re close, she ventured finally, and it was Davey’s turn to stumble over her accent (cadenced and hurried South Indian). Eh, what’s that?
We’re close to Washington, she said, it’s just across the river.
Yeah, that you are, said Davey, admiringly. If I lived out here, I’d have no call to worry about visiting James, or fighting for Joanie and Willie, or beating off Amy with a stick!
Sumita stared and kept staring. Unravelling his accent was becoming the least of her worries.
James is sick, explained Davey right away, possibly noting her confusion. He’s my stepfather-in-law through Melissa, my first wife, the one I had the twins with. See, look! He pulled out his wallet and rifled through pictures, pushing his falling-down spectacles with one hand.
Astonished, Sumita looked when he stretched out his hand. The twins were a fat chubby baby and a fat chubby toddler sitting on a table beside a vastly younger Davey and a blonde, frizzy-haired Melissa, who looked sixteen. Not twins. Wait. Not twins?
Those are their baby pictures, said Davey, they’re all grown now. They grow when you ain’t looking, there ain’t no way to keep tracka them unless you’re in the same house with them. He was off on a private rumination but Sumita stopped him. She liked her stories straight, usually.
How grown? She caught herself. How old are they now?
Willie’s eight and the little one’s coming on six, said Davey, rifling through other pictures, his face relapsing into melancholy. That boy takes after his father’s side of the family.
But why were they twins? Sumita almost said this aloud. It was a small, itchy burr. But she needed to unhook it. Why did you say they were twins?
What’s that? Oh yes, twins, their mother says that to them—like as peas in a pod, she says to them, though there’s the height difference and all—I jess fall in with what she calls them—she’s the one who takes care of them and all. He pushed his glasses up and swam his blue eyes toward Sumita.
She fumbled. They’re not with you? She meant, you’re not married? They’re not your family?
You’d think a court would give them to the father, when he’s stable and working, got a steady job. I’m ten times more reliable to what she is, you know she had that DUI and her license ain’t up to date, you know. He flicked ash from his cigarette onto the snow-mounded azalea and Sumita frowned. She didn’t know anything, she wanted to say, that’s why she was asking.
The court gave them away?
Yeah, he nodded, she got custody. Just because she’s the mother, and she been working that waitress job a year by then, they’re always willing to give the woman the benefit.
You pay child support? Sumita was being drawn into this story without consciously intending to be. She was poised to wheel the child down to the bike trail at the end of Jefferson.
I don’t know nobody not paying child-support, he said, defensively. He took his glasses off and wiped them, back and forth, on his grey jeans.
I meant, Sumita stopped. She wanted to say, for whom, were there other children? But she found the words had vanished. Her mouth felt dry and cold.
Davey didn’t need her to continue. He did need her to be there, facing him, in a posture of attention. And she was. All was well. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew, watching the smoke trail thickly on the cold air. She cain’t keep to herself, he said, she got to meddle in my affairs all the time.
Amy, he obliged.
Who’s that? Hadn’t they been talking about Melissa, just then?
We-ell, she used to be my girlfriend, before Wendy and she got talking and they find out me and Wendy’d been goin’ out round the same time as her—like a rock of granite, she is. Not like Wendy—I don’t see Wendy now, lockin’ her baby up and keepin’ it from the one that brought her into the world! You’d think she’d keep her distance too—but no! She got to have her cake and all and eat it too!
Sumita put a hand on the cold white rail over the steps for comfort. This story spun in the air around her like a giant snowball. Huh? She would have been more articulate if only words would form in her head.
They let her keep the baby, he explained, flicking off ash.
They’re like that, he shrugged. Favor the mother each time. No thought to the father. The one who keeps her afloat, who’d they think pays her bills?
Sumita was drowning, but she thought she saw a rock to cling to here. You had a baby with Amy?
Davey laughed, a short, embarrassed-for-you laugh. Didn’t you see the picture just now? He pulled out the wallet again.
Sumita frowned. One of those two—the twins?
Oh—you weren’t paying attention, chided Davey, finding the picture and holding it out to her. See! Sumita stared, she hadn’t seen that one before. This was another baby. A small, pink-faced baby, almost a newborn, covered in a soft yellow blanket and nestled in the crook of Davey’s arms. The background was blue, it was a head-and-shoulders shot. Davey’s baseball cap was on straight, his spectacles were off, and his naked blue eyes peered happily out above the ginger moustache. In his arms lay the infant.
I didn’t see this picture before.
Sure you did! He tapped her lightly on the arm. Sumita stepped a step back, quite involuntarily, and teetered into the brown snow-mounded pot with the dead ferns in it that sat on the first step.
Careful! said Davey. He put a hand on her arm to steady her. She took a quick, nervous breath. He was so close she could smell the Marlboro smoke on his moustache. She wanted him to move but he didn’t. He smiled down at her, let his hand trail lightly to her wrist before letting go. You be careful now!
Sumita, doubly flustered, mind racing already to all the possible motivations that might lurk behind that moment, that touch, took another gulping breath and stepped another step away from him, into the snow on the grass and closer to the baby in the carriage, lying sleepily still on his back, watching them. She felt distinctly he was flirting with her. She felt distinctly helpless as to how to deal with it. She wanted to be polite, but she was a little confused. That was when a small fragment of her journalist’s training, long-dead, suddenly, and consciously, surfaced. She looked pointedly down at the picture.
This one’s also yours?
Davey looked down at the baby picture with an instantly sad wistful look on his face. Yeah, he’s mine. He was two days old in that picture. I ain’t held that child since then.
He shrugged. His eyes were misting over, he put a hand up under his glasses and wiped his lashes. Ginger like his hair, Sumita noticed, as the glasses came off and the wet blue eyes blinked sadly at her. It was abrupt, his features smudging into tears. Ain’t never held that child, he said, not once, and he was crying, now, watery tears sliding down his stubbly cheeks and dropping off his chin.
Sumita froze. He was crying, she didn’t know him, he was some strange contractor-guy, she was supposedly a wife, which meant all sorts of womanly obligations, she couldn’t even pat him on the shoulder like she could a boy. She stared at him, stricken.
Not once since the time she left the hospital did she let me anywhere near him. It ain’t right, to bring a child up like that, without his father! Davey’s voice was thick and sniffly, and Sumita automatically put a hand out to the baby carriage, pulled out her portable packet of Rite Aid Kleenex, handed one to him.
Thanks, he sniffled, taking it, blowing into it, stepping back onto grass and snow himself. They got no notion how wrong it is, he said, to jess leave a man like that, and not let him see their child.
No, said Sumita, not sure why she was saying it. She tried to reawaken the journalist within, who seemed to have momentarily turned into a block of wood. What’s his name?
James Alexander Johnson. Named after his grandfather. Who I’m gonna see tonight.
But wasn’t that Melissa’s father? She said this aloud, not intending to. Had she misheard things?
Yeah, them two being cousins and all.
Not much was falling into place. Melissa and Amy were cousins, with the same father? I’m not sure I understand, she said.
It’s not hard to get confused between the two of them, he agreed, seeing as how they both call, first thing every month. Check ain’t come yet! That’s all they care about.
Child support, realized Sumita, grateful for a straw. Considering he wasn’t even trying to make sense.
She swears he isn’t mine, too, went on Davey, usefully. Tries to keep me from getting anywhere near him, denies paternity.
But she wants child support? Some kind of giant fly throbbed inside Sumita’s left temple.
She’s lying, said Davey. He smiled at her, congenially, pushed his glasses up his nose. She lies about everything. He grinned. She cain’t keep a lie to herself. She sees a lie, she got to have it first. Then she gives it away, a hundred times over. If I had a dollar for every lie that girl give me in the seven months we been together, I’d be rich as Donald Trump. She’s lying about the paternity, and everyone knows it. One look at James, everyone knows. That child looks more like my mother than my mother ever did.
In Davey’s world, Sumita finally saw such things were possible.
She just likes to dangle all the strings in the air, keep me from having any say. She used to scream and throw plates all the time. I need to express myself, she’d say. It’s all she ever did. That and get knocked-up, twice over, in two years.
The trick, Sumita saw, was to extract the vital information and try to piece it together. To ask only the pertinent question. How many children do you have, she asked.
Four, said Davey, I told you about the boy didn’t I?
No. She refused to feel emotion at this, her own cool No. She was a reporter now, she had a right to be objective. At the back of her mind, she felt censorious. This man, who seemed comprehensively scattered, had four children?
My thirteen-year-old, said Davey. We played baseball on Christmas day, at his school, snow and all. He likes being outdoors, playing with his dad. Davey rested his hand on the white carriage handle.
Sumita floundered. Whose child is he, she wanted to ask, but was afraid to. Buck up, she tried to tell herself, would a journalist stop like that? This is Melissa’s and your son?
He’s my stepson, said Davey, Tina’s kid by her second marriage. But we were together a long time.
How old was this guy anyway? What did “a long time” mean? Tina? she asked.
She and I were in high school together, explained Davey. She come back to run a florist’s shop, after she got married and divorced and all. I built the shop for her, over at the Harris mall.
I need a notebook, thought Sumita. I need a notebook, to write all of this down. This is like news from a foreign country. She turned to the door. I need some water, she said, lying. Would you like some?
Well, I’ve got to git goin’, said Davey, immediately, shuffling. I’m headed to the hospital to see James. Sick as a dog he’s been—they say it was only a virus at first, then it’s his heart, then pneumonia—he’s an old man, I think I know to do the right thing when I see it. I meant to go over there this afternoon, soon as I could from my job. I better head on there.
Don’t, Sumita wanted to shout, don’t go yet, I was just getting started! But she tried to arrange her features into a smile, as her mother would have done. It’s nice of you to go see him, she said, straining.
Davey shrugged, shook his head. Those women they don’t know how to treat a man right. But I got to do the right thing by people. Pay my respects, before a man is dead, and there ain’t no point then.
No, agreed Sumita, beginning to marvel, inside, at the marvelous wisdom that was Davey Brickett.
I’ll see you tomorrow then. Y’all have a nice walk now. He nodded toward the baby, smiled, and wandered off, across the yard and toward his pick-up.
Crushed, Sumita pulled the front door open and went inside.
She found ice, water, a glass. She opened the door into Sudhir’s home-office, where he worked at home on the weekends while she took care of the house and the baby. In less than a minute she found a blank notebook inside Sudhir’s desk drawer, took it to the kitchen, and began writing on her kitchen counter, ice cubes sweating in the tray and water in her glass reflecting light onto the white ceiling. Questions to ask, she wrote. Occupation, background, childhood. What was mother like? What about father’s example? How come so many girlfriends? Why was Melissa so young and he so obviously older? How old was Wendy? Wait, who did he have the baby with—Wendy or Amy? What about Tina, and the stepson? How normal was all this, for Winchester? She wanted him to come back. She wanted answers.
The phone rang. It was Sudhir, telling her he’d be late tonight.
Her fingers tightened on the handset. She had only to hear his voice to feel the familiar pull of tension between them, the way he clipped his words off with certainty, not expecting opposition, warning her not to engage in any. An old pattern already between them, an old way of speaking, even though they were a few months short of their second wedding anniversary.
She tried to make her voice sound level and nonchalant, the way she always did, despite that tone of his. Doing what, she asked, carefully, as if idly. She was doodling on the notepad as she spoke, drawing Davey’s face, a square face with square spectacles and light-irised eyes inside them. The subject, she was thinking. He was the subject of her enquiry. She was the investigator.
The small silence on the phone alerted her to the enormity of her courage in even slightly questioning her husband. There’s no need for you to know, he said, finally, as if frowning. For what, why do you want to know? He was suspicious, probing.
Sumita shrugged, then realized he couldn’t see it. No reason. You’re coming late, just thought I’d ask.
He sounded irate. You won’t understand. You can’t understand anything I’m doing!
Sumita felt the sting of this only slightly, on the surface of her skin, like the passing malice of a small yellow wasp. She was so used to his irritability. Yet as she looked down at her evolving sketch of Davey Brickett, she felt there was really no cause for her to succumb just yet, and fall in with his view of things. Something about that conversation with Davey had woken her to a new sense of alertness about her own, long-forgotten self. What’s wrong with asking what you’re doing, she said, this slim new sheath of daring over her skin. Why won’t I understand? Really, this was more than she’d ever said to him while he was at work.
In his pause, she felt his astonishment. He said, grimly, as if setting out to prove himself right, and only incidentally providing information, I’m harvesting fetuses.
What? She stopped drawing lights in Davey’s eyes.
You see (he sounded triumphant), you have no idea what I’m doing!
No, said Sumita, shading Davey’s eyebrows now, that’s why I’m asking!
Why do you ask? Do you really want to know? He was sarcastic now.
Yes, of course I do. She had turned to a new page. A new idea was beginning to grip her. Sudhir, she wrote. She could do a story on him, she was thinking. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? He was a researcher, she could use his subject. As hers. She could be dispassionate, external, the documentary observer. She could write this for some kind of science-oriented magazine. Not too specialized. Not an insider publication. Something more general—Scientific American maybe? She would have to do some research. And why not? It was all doable, suddenly. Already, she felt in the grip of an elixir. Floating and alive. Lifted, as if she were a helium balloon on a feverish thermal rise. The fever was to know. She needed to keep asking questions. The 5 Ws and one H, she wrote. The pyramid, the inverted pyramid every journalist knows. You couldn’t create that pyramid if you didn’t know. You asked the questions in order to know. You asked because you needed the information. The question tumbled out of her in a rush. Tell me more Sudhir, what’s this research you’re doing?
Sudhir paused, as if mulling over her question. She knew him. She was used to him pausing like that when he was puzzled, or incredulous. He was used to second-guessing, probing silently for motivation. Why would I tell you, he said again. There’s no need for you to get involved in this.
She quelled the uprush of irritation she felt at the rejoinder, which was not at all unfamiliar, and said, I’m not getting involved. I’m curious, is all. Unwilling, she wrote, meanwhile, under Sudhir. A reticent subject. Unwilling to divulge information.
Sudhir hesitated once more, then said, surprisingly, Well, I’ll try to make it simple. We’re trying to determine if panic attacks are genetic and if so, how. We’re subjecting female beagles to stresses intended to provoke panic attacks over an extended period of time, following which we induce pregnancy and remove the fetuses before birth.
Why any of the above, Sumita wanted to shout, but restrained herself. She hadn’t bargained for her own habitual impatience with the way he spoke to her. She was tired of his edginess, his second-guessing, his constant probing. It was so much work, talking to him. She constantly had to feint and dodge, bow, maneuver, fend off attack. She tried to keep her tone remote and gentle. Why remove the fetuses?
Our interest is in the fetal neurons. He kept his tone dry, his voice academic, as if he were in a lecture hall, speaking to first-year students. We need to find out how the stress affects the development of nerve cells, or if it does.
Sumita proceeded with caution. What will you do when you find out?
What do you think—publish the results, of course!
She felt let-down. That’s all?
Sudhir kept silent for a moment. Then his voice came out, slick with sarcasm. That’s all. What do you mean, that’s all. You think publishing is easy?
Sumita shook her head, although Sudhir couldn’t see it. No, she said, her voice dropping to quiet, I meant, what is the point of your research?
It was instant. Not preceded by silence this time. How dare you ask me that, he said, his voice rising. (She felt alarmed at first, then felt sure his office door was closed, he would never raise his voice otherwise.) It’s nationally funded--it will help generations of patients! It will change everything we know about the physiological and genetic impacts of stress! Don’t try to make out as if all my work is meaningless! Raspy, livid texture in his voice, high note of affront and rebuke.
I’m not making out anything. Sumita’s voice shivered and trailed away. Her face pulled into confusion. This always happened. Something always shrunk and tore between them. Whatever she tried, the words she used seemed useless. She had wanted to ask, what do you feel about this? Is there a reason for doing this to beagles? She had wanted to probe his secret thinking. But he didn’t seem to want to talk to her.
I don’t know why I bother talking to you about it. I told you, you simply cannot understand! His voice had risen to high-pitched unhappiness. He slammed the phone down.
The sound a gigantic crash in her ears. She put the phone back in its cradle. Shaking, herself.
Silenced, like she’d felt those first stunned days when she landed in the US. First month after her marriage, after the whirlwind procuring of her visa. Like a door had slammed in her face, and she was in a strange room, in a strange country, compelled to maneuver by eye, ear, touch. Not by speech and words. Rather, forbidden to speak. Her accent marking her, idiom setting her apart. She had stopped speaking when she noticed people constantly looking up at her and remarking on her accent, her ability to speak English at all. For months she’d swum in silence, disoriented. Feeling how her life had changed, her friends gone, career frozen, dropped off in the middle of an all-white-American suburb in Northern Virginia. Sudhir was the only one she could talk to then, freely. But “freely” began to change, talking to him. She had understood the irony of it. She had come to the land of the free, and her freedom was lost. She ran a hand over her eyes. Her throat felt prickly, as if words, all those words crouching inside her for years, had lodged themselves there, and become exiled there, bundled and paperless and unheard.
After a minute she picked up her pen. Her hand shook. But she forced herself to be cool, calm, and objective. Erratic, unpredictable, out of control, she wrote. Unwilling to communicate. What a difference from the builder-guy. Who would talk through and around your incomprehension, if you let him. Who didn’t need much encouragement to talk at all. (Even if he didn’t exactly stay with his subject.) Hot-tempered and panic-stricken, she wrote.
She took a breath, saw what she’d written. Panic? Panic attacks. How interesting. Investigate family history, she wrote. Discover origin. She wondered idly if panic attacks ran in his family, if that was why Sudhir had got into the field. But then she remembered something. His family was like him. Exactly. They would never advertise to the world anything they perceived to assail their image of perfection. On the contrary, they’d do everything they could to distract your attention from it. Baby-powder for the baby’s bottom, she remembered. That too when she was talking about that CNN reporter, Luisa Maria Rivera, about journalism. No, if they’d ever experienced panic attacks, they would have pushed him into Engineering. Something safe. Not Medicine. Mechanical Engineering maybe. As far from panic as you could get.
But thinking about Sudhir’s parents right after talking to him left Sumita feeling awkward and deflated. Flat, the balloon inside her keeling in folds to sagging skin. She sighed and raised the glass to her lips.
Davey had driven only to the end of the street when he realized the nagging feeling of discontent he felt just then had nothing to do with his impending hospital visit and everything to do with the young Indian woman he had just left. He had liked talking to her. She was easy to talk to, easy on the eye. If a little unusual, with that long braid of hers. She had seemed interested in him. Maybe she was, he thought. Maybe that husband of hers who left her to deal with the contractors wasn’t a conversationalist. She could be starved for talk. How long had she been in the country, he wondered. Did she have friends? She had been ready to take that baby for a walk all by herself. The women he knew seemed to always do that kind of thing in groups. Taking the baby to the park, shopping, movies, manicures. But then she wasn’t like the women he knew. Quiet, courteous, she didn’t interrupt when he was talking, didn’t shout at him. She was sympathetic.
He could become interested in a woman like her, he mused. Although she was skittish. He remembered how she’d flinched when he touched her. As if she wasn’t used to a man touching her. Maybe, he thought next, she wasn’t. Maybe it was all new to her--men, other men. Maybe she was in one of them there arranged marriages they showed in the movies, she wasn’t at all used to men talking to her. Davey thought this and then thought, immediately after: well she could be unhappy in that there arranged marriage, could be looking for a way out. He pushed his glasses up his nose, beginning to smile. He didn’t feel averse to becoming a way out. Maybe he had sensed all of this already, had been wordlessly offering himself when he teased her wrist that way, unconsciously, playing. He remembered how she’d wordlessly handed him Kleenex. It made him feel warm to remember. The Kleenex was still in his hands, crunched into a ball.
She seemed to understand what he felt about never seeing his baby. Of course, he could not stop the tears that came again to his eyes, thinking of his baby, who had mysteriously, in his imagining, started to share the same memory-space and heart-space as Jenny’s poor dead baby, Percy, so thinking of one made him weep for the other, not realizing where the tears came from or where they were going. His glasses fogged over. He lifted the Kleenex to his eyes, adjusted his glasses as he slowed down and stopped at the traffic light on Washington. He thought, briefly, of her baby. He had gotten a look at him only at the end, when she tripped and almost fell. Brown peach-skin, like hers, dark eyes, fat and solemn, lying placidly there in his yellow blanket, certain of protection. He could have stayed, he thought. Maybe even walked the baby with her. She had offered him water. He mentally kicked himself. He could have accepted. Maybe she had wanted to keep him there, go on talking to him. All those questions. It was like she had an interest.
The light changed and Dave was getting ready to cross the intersection when a bright flash of yellow hurtled across, blowing the red, and what was it but a yellow Ford pick-up truck, shiny, tough, and new.
Now, in the long rollicking span of his adulthood, Davey had seen many yellow pick-ups. He had come to understand he would never buy one himself. Not merely because they were expensive and he’d probably spend years paying for one, but because the long desire he’d pinned to them for years had become a sullen, unmet weight now, too much to bear. He thought he had resolved this.
Yet now he felt a terrible tightening of his chest, looking at this one. He was frozen in place like everyone else, of course, on both sides—there’s nothing else to do when someone is risking life, limb, and tickets directly in front of you, endangering more lives than his own. But it was more than that. He felt nauseous, as if he had been driving a roller-coaster that had suddenly flipped him upside-down in the air. As if a deep closed-over wound inside him had suddenly torn open. He had wanted this car once, more than anything in the world. All manner of memories swirled in ungainly chaos inside him. His father, Tommy, his mother, MaryLou.
The man behind the wheel was young, blond, looked like a college kid spending his father’s money. Reckless, irresponsible, pushing the boundaries. Like his father. Not like him, he thought, with sudden fierceness. Not half likely. He sure wasn’t the kind to abandon his babies. He knew what it was like to be a child, vulnerable, needing arms to hold him, a man to look up to—a father.
It was hard to think this final thought and remain composed. The smudge of water in Davey’s eyes blurred and filled. Tears poured down his face, and the wet piece of tissue in his hands, crushed and twisted, wasn’t enough to mop them.
It was the sound of banging and the steady back and forthing of Spanish that alerted Sumita to the presence of the workers upstairs, working on the wall. A cool winter wind blew down at her as she paused by the stairs and looked up. Soft blue carpeting met her view. She couldn’t see, from here, what they were doing. But she wanted a diversion. Words still itched and burned inside her, she felt their burden. She went up the stairs, cautiously.
The men turned around when she arrived but didn’t say anything. She felt uncomfortable, but felt she knew why they kept silent. It was because they knew, despite her reassuringly brown skin, she was from India, they could tell by her black plait and blue bindhi, not from Bolivia or Guatemala or some other Spanish-speaking country, and she didn’t speak Spanish—or at least had given them no indication she could. Could they speak English? She didn’t know.
She stepped fully into the room and saw the hole ripped out of the wall. Thick pads of damp, mold-blackened insulation foam lay scattered round the room, along with strips of dark, damp wood, electric switch panels, motley implements, their vacuum cleaner. The hole was large and jagged. It was ice blue with sky, needly with pine. Orange scaffolding was drawn up close to it. The white pines and bare tulip poplar from the neighbor’s yard had entered the hole and stood there, waving. Clumps of snow on the pine met her gaze. Cold air blew generously into the room.
Sumita shivered. It’s freezing up here, she said.
The men looked embarrassed at her and away. No Ingles, said one, smiling. The other kept hammering at dead wood.
She watched them for a minute. They worked without talking, in her presence. She wanted to talk to them. Open some kind of conversation. They were Mexicans, she knew. Probably illegal. Illegal aliens. She had read about those kind of people. Crossing rivers, stowing away in trucks. Of course she understood why. They were poor, they wanted a better life. Exactly like in India. The reason the cities were crowded was the lack of work, lack of land, lack of water in the villages. Laborers lost jobs when the farms became mechanized or sold out to factories. Farmers lost their minute pockets of land. It was the Law of Diffusion. Gases at high pressure migrating toward territories at low pressure. Who could not understand that? But some people resisted this movement, she knew. Just like in India. Her own family disparaged the constant infusion of the slum-people into their city. She read the paper in the mornings when the baby was sleeping. The resistance was everywhere, even here in the United States, which allowed so much immigration. This was why California’s last governor wanted to deny children healthcare and Virginia’s legislature wanted to deny them schools. She was on their side, she wanted to say. She was supportive. She understood their dilemma. But how could she say a word, without knowing their language?
She strove for her most maternal, sympathetic tone, trusting that tone might obviate language. You are from Mexico?
The No Ingles one with the red kerchief knotted round his throat looked at her questioningly.
No no de Mexico, said the other one, who looked older, ceasing his hammering and sitting back on his jeans and boots. Salvador. El Salbador.
Ah, said Sumita, nodding. Central America then. How long have you been here in the US? The two looked at each other uneasily. It crossed her mind that an illegal alien person probably could not appreciate being interrogated by a one-day-to-be-journalist. But the one sitting translated for the other. Five anos--years, he said to her readily.
The other held up his hand with fingers splayed. Three.
He no from Salbador, said the older man. He Honduras.
Ah, said Sumita. How wrong she had been! She frowned to herself. What else had she been wrong about. The fact that they were willing to chat seemed to say something. That they did not consider her a danger to their status. She tried to formulate a new question.
But the older one was getting up already, shaking plaster off his blue plaid shirt, picking up his black quilted jacket. Lunch, he was saying.
Sumita glanced at the clock. It was almost one-thirty. Time had flown.
You no eat lunch? Once they made up their mind, it seemed, there was no hanging around. They were both heading toward her slowly, toward the stairs. Baby no eat? They smiled.
It was as simple as that, slight, the reminder. A little sprinkle of words. That the two men themselves didn’t imagine were important. But that to Sumita suddenly meant the hole in the room she was looking at, over their shoulders, was turning. Spinning the pine and the scaffolding and the icy sky in it. Churning the random birds to ice, tearing into the fabric of the room itself, into its covers of white canvas over the furniture, its cabinets of clothes and jewels, throwing things round until she felt she was inside a giant washer, flailing and threshing. For that was when Sumita remembered the baby.
For exactly one second she was absolutely still, mind racing, feet planted to the step. She was a monster. She was irresponsible. Sudhir would kill her if he knew. All this time, how long had it been? All this time while she’d been in the kitchen, the living-room, Sudhir’s office, and now up here, the baby was outside in his thin fleece jacket, shivering. Oh my God! She put a hand to her mouth. The poor, poor thing! She turned and ran down the steps and then the hallway, flung open the front door. The two men followed her, frowning. Clearly they had set off a crisis. But they didn’t know how or why.
Sumita ran down the steps to the carriage in the icy grass, still propped near the bedraggled, snow-clumped azalea. She lifted the hood and put her hands in to lift the precious infant out from his frozen lair.
But of course, he was not there.
Mechanically, not reacting at first, her hands kept searching.
His yellow blanket was not there. His white stuffed rabbit was still there. His pacifier lay half-under the soft cotton pillow. His feeding-bottle and blue and yellow bag of diapers and baby food lay hooked to the side where she had left them.
She looked under the pram.
She moved the pram a little down the walk and looked at the grass, where the pram had stood, as if he may have deliquesced through the canvas sides like salt and precipitated there.
The two men watched her, and realized. The one who spoke English stepped forward. Where is baby, he said, rather grimly.
He was just here, said Sumita, in a scrapey unlike-herself voice, he was just here a moment ago! Where did he go?
She wanted to cry, at the enormity of it. But she mostly felt puzzled. She started to ruffle through the bedclothes again but the man stopped her. He no here, he said harshly, holding the pram handle. He seemed to be blaming her, the look in his eyes corrosive. Baby no here!
The other man had started to walk around the yard, looking behind the bushes. The azalea, the pink rhododendron, the forsythia.
Go look in house, commanded the one talking to her. Maybe he inside?
No! Sumita was certain she’d brought him out. But now she started to waver. Had she? Maybe he was in his bed after all, snug and warm?
She went, looked. Tore into all the rooms, searching. Her mind was not working right. She felt numb and frozen, as if she’d been the one left outside for two hours. He was nowhere. She ran outside again. They were both walking around the yard, looking. They were both looking at her in grim disbelief. Call police, they said. Call husband.
They took her into the house. They stood over her while she dialed 911. She didn’t know what to say. My baby’s gone, she said to the operator. She gave her address. She dialed her husband, who wasn’t in his office. She put the phone down. She felt cold suddenly, started to shake all over. The men made her sit down, brought her water to drink. They were starting to soften toward her, she saw. They were less angry.
You can go, she said, thinking they surely would not want to be around when the police came.
No no. They stayed. Sirens were already blaring down the street. When the police came, they told the police the story. They gave their names. Jose Molina. Felipe Carreras. They worked for a construction company, they said. Logan Builders, 208 Morgan Avenue, Winchester. They were regular employees. The owner was Henry Logan. When they turned to her she could not remember the baby’s name. Her own baby, a whole year old inside his name. She stared, blankly. The white-American woman officer talking to her led her into the dining-room, made her sit at the table. What were you doing, she asked, for two hours, inside the house? Sumita stared, because she remembered. That roller-coaster she’d been on the past few hours plummeted to a swamping sense of embarrassment. She stayed silent, she didn’t know how to tell any of it.
The day went by in a blur of lights, cameras, mikes thrust up at her, policemen asking questions. Neighbors dropped in to talk, to ask if she had eaten. Reporters took over the kitchen. At four, someone ordered a pizza and cut her a slice, thick with mushrooms and green peppers. She drank some Sprite someone poured for her. Mrs. Rawson, who lived two houses down, and baby-sat for her grandchildren by day, came by with her hair newly-dyed bright auburn and her two babies. This is America, she said, to what looked to her like a blurred and unregistering Sumita, children can be stolen! The horror of it struck Sumita like a tidal wave then. But in India too, she wanted to say (as if this were a competition), this kind of thing happens! You hear all the time about poor children being stolen and maimed by thugs to make them into beggars, in the villages. But that’s not what happened here, was it?
Children are murdered, enunciated Mrs. Rawson. People do terrible things to children! Even looking directly into Mrs. Rawson’s angry grey-blue eyes, Sumita could not actually conceive of this. It was still the cold that gripped her conscience. The guilt she felt at having left Akhash out in 30 degree weather overwhelmed her. She stared, not speaking. You Can Never Be Too Careful, Mrs. Rawson said, enunciating each word loudly and clearly. It was apparent she believed Sumita could not understand her. It is not done, in this country, to leave the children by themselves! The reporters exchanged glances at this and nodded adultly to each other. Not even for a minute, said Mrs. Rawson. She was clearly unnerved at Sumita’s lack of reaction. She was outraged at the disappearance of a child in her neighborhood. She was concerned, but everyone could tell she was mostly disappointed and angry.
The policewoman moved to protect the mother. Alright, ma’am, if you don’t mind, we need to question Mrs. Sudhir now. Mrs. Rawson left only because she was escorted out of the room, pushing her baby carriage pointedly ahead of her.
The police resumed their questioning. Sometime after five, Sumita let slip that she had not been standing by herself in those few minutes after she had wheeled the child onto the grass. She had not said a word up till then about the day’s frenzy of journalism, desire eating her from the inside out, the marvelous subject that Davey was, the hope that had suddenly flared inside her in that moment, talking to him. Like being lost in an underground cavern and suddenly seeing torchlights, candles, people coming to rescue you. Like having your feet embedded in stone for years and suddenly feeling them rise. She was disoriented. The real journalists hovering around her felt like gods from a distant planet. She was afraid to mention the word journalism, in their presence.
But she said “contractor.” Jose Molina, who had not left yet, nodded and supplied the name. Davey Brickett. He was the foreman, and the carpenter. Pandemonium appeared to erupt in the kitchen. Our latest reports indicate, began a reporter nearby. The police issued a general warning to the Press to desist from hasty reportage. The police wanted him first for questioning immediately. They took Jose aside. Into this melee of excitement, distraught and apprehensive, Sudhir stepped.
The rest as they say, is history. Police in Arlington contacted the police in Winchester, who paid a visit to Davey Brickett’s home where they found Davey Brickett, sitting on his worn beige living-room sofa, one plastic lens from his glasses missing, tears running down his face, yellow baby blanket draped over his chest, holding the baby. The baby was unharmed. He had tried feeding the baby fries, he said, that he’d picked up at a drive-through Wendy’s, but it wouldn’t have none of it. There warn’t nothin’ but beer and dill pickles and mustard in the fridge, he said. He was waiting for Tina to come help him out, so he could go to the store and get proper fixin’s for the baby. He had a hard time driving, he said, he could barely see where he was going, because his eyeglasses had fallen out. The police listened impassively, then arrested him, and he cried. All he wanted was a few minutes, he said, just to hold the baby.
No-one seemed to comprehend the significance of this but of course Sumita did, when she heard. She looked at the grainy black and white of Davey’s photograph in the paper the next morning and remembered the other one she had seen, the baby in his arms, the absurd pleasure on his face as he looked down at it. She remembered his words. It made her feel guilty, as if she had colluded with her son’s kidnapper. She was both confused and convinced she understood. She could not understand how the friendly Davey Brickett who, when she left him, had seemed intent on cordial enquiry into the well-being of his once father-in-law (although father to two cousins) could have suddenly backtracked and plucked her son from his pram like a ripe Virginia plum. At the same time she felt she understood what it was, he had just wanted the baby-feel in his arms, baby-touch on his chest, baby-love against his mouth. She remembered the tears he had cried. A sliver of icy sadness knifing through her. She wanted to go back to that moment in the front yard, to lift the child out from his carriage and hold him out to Davey, to be carried and touched.
She, herself, was not so attached to the baby, she knew. He was still new and strange to her. Only sometimes he felt like a part of herself. She liked to lift him up, hold the weight of him in her arms. Sometimes she liked to watch his eyes as they measured from side to side her face, and beyond her, whatever was behind—Sudhir, or the room, or the winter sky. She felt she could understand how Davey would want that trusting closeness, day after day. Why he would feel cheated, that his baby was being kept from him. She sighed as she looked at Davey’s face, light-blinded, bewildered, as if he were a beagle crouching in a cage in a laboratory somewhere in the deeps of NIH, and a hand had reached in to pull him out into the blinding light of panic attack research.
Sudhir saw this, her reading the article, sighing, and informed her she was a fool because she had stopped studying Science. How could you trust that man, he said. Sumita put the paper down and did not answer. She gave the baby his bottle, then walked around the room, trying to burp him.
For days afterward, relatives called and demanded to be told the story, over and over. They then asked her the same question, and gave her advice on how to avoid talking to construction workers. From India, her in-laws’ relatives called and cautioned her on speaking to men at all, after she was married. Sumita listened and did not answer. She wanted to say, it’s alright, that moment of journalism has already slipped and slid away, you have nothing to worry about. I am back to being a full-time wife and mother, there’s no danger now. And she thought this thoughtfully, the moment was already memory, she was trying to pack it deep into earth so it could never rise, float, return to her, but she could not bring herself to say the words.
Meanwhile construction resumed on their back wall. A new carpenter, tall, thin, and reserved, was appointed. The Central American workers worked. Sumita talked to none of them now. She tucked her yellow blanket around the baby’s now-safely-returned head and hummed bravely to herself as she wheeled the pram down the walk then down Jefferson to the bike-trail. She tried to breathe slowly and soothingly over the field scraped and raw inside her. She tried to ignore the neighbors, who stopped talking as she approached. She tried to go on with her everyday routines, as if nothing had happened.
Ramola D’s short fiction collection Temporary Lives (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) received the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Award in Short Fiction, and her poetry collection Invisible Season (WWPH, 1998), co-won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry award in 1998. A Discovery/The Nation finalist and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the recipient of a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and writer-interviews have appeared in various journals and anthologies including Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, Agni, Northwest Review, Green Mountains Review, Writer’s Chronicle, Indiana Review, and been reprinted in Best American Poetry 1994, and Best American Fantasy 2007. Her fiction was shortlisted in Best American Stories 2007, and included in Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington DC Women Writers. She holds an MFA in Poetry from George Mason University and a BS in Physics and an MBA from the University of Madras. She has most recently taught creative writing at The George Washington University and The Writer’s Center, Bethesda. She currently lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter.