Paige Austin has interesting work, a stable marriage, and a circle of women friends who help soothe the empty spot she would have filled with the child she can't conceive. Then the stepson she hardly knows, Malachi MacGowan, walks into her life. An impossibly tall, smart-talking young man, he makes her feel certifiably old and yet edgily, wonderfully alive.
In a few electric days, Mal and Paige seem to forge a connection neither of them can fully fathom. She is no longer childless, and Mal basks in a love unprecedented in his seventeen years. Then, as abruptly as he arrived, he stalks away into an existence defined by friends and activities Paige can only imagine. Left with an unraveling marriage and a wounded heart, she attempts her own kind of escape...until Mal's inevitable crisis crashes in.
With her keen eye and courageous take on the mutable faces of love, Elizabeth Richards vividly illumines how an ordinary life can change in a heartbeat and then change again.
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"Mrs. MacGowan? I'm afraid I've got some disappointing news about your son Malachi."
"He's not my son," I say for the thousandth time. I hand the phone to Ian and watch his face harden against the details of Mal's latest. A minute later he bangs down the receiver and mumbles something I'm glad I can't hear.
"What?" I ask.
"Pot," he says. "Three strikes, he's out."
I'm about to commiserate, but the phone rings again and Ian's on with Mal's mother, who, I gather from what's being said on our end, is throwing Malachi out too.
"You think throwing him out is going to keep drug sales to a dull roar?" Ian yells into the phone. Ian's a lawyer: the odd puff is one thing, sales quite another. "What kind of a message are you sending to the kid? Never mind you haven't stayed home a single day in his life."
Again, the receiver crashing down. "Christ," he says.
"She's asking you to take him," I surmise.
"Asking?" he argues. "No. Dorothy doesn't ask. She informs."
I give myself a minute to form a response, all the while conscious of his watching me for a sign of letup.
"I'm not sure I know how to care for a delinquent."
Tiny smile. Hope. There's a chance I'll do it. Not that either of us wants this, wants our world so altered. And I barely know Malachi. He's a teenager, and he keeps to his friends from school, a campus way out on a promontory of Brooklyn.
"Let me talk to him," Ian says. "I'm not sure what to do here."
I start bustling, as is my wont in times of strain. I decide to make brownies. If he's coming, there'll have to be some decent dessert on hand. I retrieve my grandmother Birch's recipe from the back of Fannie Farmer. I follow the loopy script, scrawled generously across the yellowed piece of lined paper, conscious all the while of Ian on the phone with Mal, his even interrogatives, his outrage eloquent now that he's not directing it at his ex-wife. The recipe calls for "pinches" of this and that, elements "to taste" and baking "until done." As a child, I watched Birch put things together, guesswork, but now I'm nervous I won't be able to duplicate her success. I'm sure I'll make some small mistake that will amount to disaster.
"You've got a lot to make up for." I'm struck by the irony of what he's saying: so many of our discussions have centered on how much he feels he has to make up for.
How will we do this? I wonder, once the brownies are in the oven. Perhaps he'll just get absorbed in all the household activity. I'm hard at work on the books by six-thirty, then in the afternoons the littles come. There are four of them, Ralph, Electra, Winifred, and Kyle, and they're all in first grade, hardly little. But I get away with calling them so because sometimes Kyle's younger brother comes and he's sixteen months, too fat to walk and, on rough days, a good reason for me to go on living. They all get picked up by six, except for Winifred, whose mother is pathologically late, and I've got time to straighten the apartment before Ian gets home.
He appears in the kitchen doorway, puts his glasses down on the counter and rubs his eyes.
"He wants to come here. I said I'd talk to you."
ar"Maybe he can help me with the kids in the afternoons," I say.
"Don't bet on it." Ian, my Eeyore. Although he strikes a pessimist pose as a rule, there is justification for this kind of thinking. There's a theory being bandied between the households that sibling rivalry is the reason for the drug infractions. Dorothy and Jeremy had a baby about a year ago. Once in a while they take time away from adoring the new extension of themselves for a brilliant deduction.
"Where else could he go?" I say, certain, the minute I say it, that I've sealed my own doom.
"It would only be for a little while," Ian says. "But he pulls any of that sort of garbage in this house, and he'll find himself in an SRO."
"Will Dorothy be visiting much?" I ask lightly, meaning over my dead body.
He laughs. "Just for breakfast."
"When's all this going to occur?" I ask.
"Soon as possible. She's already packed his things for him."
Determined, that's Dorothy.
"He's old enough to pack for himself," I muse.
Ian takes me in his long arms, kisses my ear. "You're a wonder," he says.
I draw back, look at him, his handsome height. "Don't speak too soon."
I turn on the oven light. I think I smell fire.
I wrap the brownies in wax paper and put them out of reach of the ravenous four, who will no doubt complain about having to eat plain Teddy Grahams in a house that smells like chocolate.
"You never give us anything good to eat!" Winifred often wails.
"Yeah, Pager," Ralph scolds. My name is Paige. He got the nickname from his doctor father, who has money enough to send him to an accredited after-school program, but gets me instead, for half the price and no decent snacks.
They've been coming to me for over a year now, so I've learned to anticipate meltdown and switch quickly to an absorbing activity or outing before Rome falls. I do miscalculate from time to time, and then I have to beg Kyle to use his words instead of hitting, or bodily restrain Electra from a disruptive dance number, or apologize to Winifred for my imperfections, or tell Ralph that he can't sue me for malpractice. These times are eased if the baby's around because I can always hide in some problem he might be having. I toe the line, count to ten instead of screaming, go in the other room for three deep breaths, pray to the God I've neglected since forever to still my temper. That something I do or say could cause their parents to stop bringing them, stop depending on me to gather them in from the world of formal school each afternoon, be three hours of their lives, is too sickening a thought to entertain.
"God, these are good," Ian says, on the Brooklyn Bridge. "What did you do that was different?"
"Nothing," I admit. "I just followed the recipe." We're inching along through merciless rain. We've had four each. Nervous eating, I call it, as when Ralph gobbles up a doughnut faster than I can get it on the plate, then asks for the box.
"I'm telling you, they're different," he says. "Best ever. Hand me another."
I tell him that will make five. He says he has to keep the tire about his middle inflated.
"I don't think of it as a tire," I say, passing him one. "It's more like a love zone, there for me to squeeze."
I reach over and squeeze gently. What he has there can hardly qualify as fat. Tall and lean as he is, it seems a mere interruption.
"Thank you," he says. "Apparently the more there is of me, the better you feel."
"Something like that."
"Okay, I won't eat any more." Now his tone is mournful. The whole way it has vacillated between this and furious.
"We could save one or two for Mal."
"Ha!" he shouts, slapping the steering wheel. "You don't think he's been making his own?"
I should probably be more on my guard. An observer of the way Ian manages his duties as absentee father and of the way Mal manages Ian, I have felt oddly safe. They seem to fling themselves around and occasionally collide, armed with tempers so fierce that they can render any space untenable for all involved. I stand by with the quick answer, making mental notes as to the whereabouts of the first-aid kit, the Domestic Incident hotline. Caring for the fabulous four and volunteering at St. Luke's have taught me, in part, to think this way, although help of this nature has not been called for to date. There have certainly been cuts and bumped heads and, once, a tooth penetrating a lip, but no surgery so far.
"Who the hell does he know can get him the stuff?" Ian says, amazed and injured. I look out at the soaked periphery, the encroaching dark. It's the end of September, but it feels much later in the season, largely, I figure, because we're traveling above open water, where it's cooler. "I don't think you have to know anyone," I say. "Maybe it's just people hanging out at the Seven-Eleven." And in this dreary weather, I'd like to add, who wouldn't be running contraband?
"I guess this means you've decided against the second house," he jests.
"Was it going to be up here?" We've been having trouble scraping together the maintenance each month, after Mal's tuition, even with my baby-sitting money, which I don't declare. A second house would equal ruin. The car we're riding in is our second home.
"I think it's going to have to remain a concept."
"That's okay with me."
Neither of us grew up with houses in reserve. Our families were inventive and grateful about vacations. And we aren't weekend people. We stay in the city, except for a week at the shore, any shore, now and then. Never vacation in the same place twice, Ian says. That way you avoid boredom and relatives. His years with Dorothy taught him this. "It's because you always had to go to Florida," I said once. I used to stay with Birch in the summer. Her house in western Massachusetts was close to a lake, "the small beach," by family designation. When Birch died, I was already in college and had friends to mooch off on summer weekends. The rest of the time I worked, in libraries, bookstores, restaurants, one summer at a dank little cinema near the college campus.
"When you think about the hell a second house can provide," Ian says, "I judge us pretty lucky."
"We are lucky!" I say. It sounds forced, as if I am trying to convince myself of this in light of what is about to happen to our only home. Already Ian has begun making lists of rules for Mal to follow as far as conduct in the apartment is concerned. Suddenly the kitchen has become a sacred zone, the living room a museum, the bedrooms cordoned off by caveats. There is a list for every one of the four rooms. I don't think I can keep to form. And I know the littles can't. Barbie's Summer Dream House, which I never take down because the boys love it, has been pushed under the desk. Each afternoon I have to remember to haul it out so no one will get upset.
"What sort of welcome is a house that shows no signs of wear?" I asked.
"If he sees a mess, he'll only add to it," Ian said.
I like mess, to a point. It bespeaks liveliness and fun, in our house anyway. On rainy days, when we can't get to the playground, the kids and I make forts, Winifred playing princess, Ralph and Kyle warriors, Electra, the daughter of musicians, wandering minstrel. When he comes, I keep the baby with me under the card table draped with bedspreads, and we await word from the powers that be. I am at my happiest after a day like this, when evidence of our good time is everywhere and no amount of laundering can destroy it. Why wouldn't Mal want to play a role in the destruction?
"These wipers stink," Ian says. "I really should stop."
"We're practically there," I point out. "And you have to order the blades specially anyway."
I know everything about the car. I bring the manual in and read it in bed while Ian works late to meet the payment schedule. I love its smooth seats and new smell and futuristic dashboard. On two occasions, after we bought new CDs, I've taken the littles out to the car because music sounds better in there than in the apartment. With a bag of Cheetos and juice boxes, it's just as good as being at home.
"Oh, Ian, lighten up. Think of this as an end to a bad chapter. We'll start the new one and just see how it goes."
"That's expensive theory," he says.
It was Ian's idea to send Mal to private school. As reasons he cited the crippling homogeneity of the yeshiva, the fact that Mal's grades could not earn him a place in any of the three decent city high schools. At a school where the student-teacher ratio was a little bit more advantageous than thirty-to-one, Ian argued, Mal might stand more of a chance.
This theory was blown to smithereens after the baby was born. Mal had been at Bay Ridge under a year when he got suspended, along with a posse of seniors found smoking pot on the fringe of the campus. When the school psychologist mentioned Mal's need for more attention from his biological parents, Mal ran with it. "It's a king's name," he said, of Solomon. Neither Ian nor I had the heart to remind him that he'd been named for a prophet.
We went to the baby's bris, which I found nearly unendurable for nontraditional reasons. The fact of the gathering aside, watching Mal greet guests he might rather have suffered a second circumcision than share air with was difficult. I saw his eyebrows lift, then fall sharply with each extraordinary entrance. I wanted to go and stand by him at the door, but anticipated too much confusion as to who I was or what, given who I was, I thought I was doing there. Dorothy, back in full social swing just eight days postpartum, fluttered around her son as adorably and insensitively as a teenager. I envied her the baby, of course, but I was surprised to find that I envied her Mal. I've kept myself, purposely, at a remove from him that none of my friends with stepchildren can fathom possible.
"Maybe he can finish the degree by mail," I say.
"Not a chance."
He's too disappointed to think about alternatives. The baby thing ours has brought this to the fore as well. After the second in-vitro, I begged him to let me start the arduous adoption process, one which threatened disappointment at every turn. I started a Birth Mother Hotline with my other childless friends, but we got more crank calls than real ones. Ian begged me to stop chasing the dream-turned-nightmare. I accepted that he was too depressed, then suspected him of a clannishness that precluded his raising another person's child. I put the literature in my bedside-table drawer and eventually threw it away.
"What about a public school?" I press on.
"He can't get into any of the good ones."
"I went to one of the not-so-good ones. It didn't hurt me any."
"You know what those schools are like now. They'd only foster the worst in him. Anyway, you went when it was safe. That was over twenty-five years ago."
"Thanks for the reminder. Maybe he's just not cut out for study," I say. "He wants to play music, Why not let him?" I've got Electra in mind, gyrating to The Spice Girls, which we bought at Coconuts one rainy afternoon.
"I don't want him to starve," Ian says bitterly. "You're starting to sound like Dorothy."
Ian slaved his way through Yale as a busboy in a frat house, watching the finest bulk up. Why won't his son work?
Whence this aversion to labor, decorum, and loyalty? Ian and I are from bookish families, and we have advanced degrees, if mine in bookbinding counts. Mal's boredom with books is an affront, more so to Ian and me than to Dorothy, who, Ian insists, wouldn't know an academy if she fell over one.
"I can't tell you how it burns me up that I'm driving this beautiful machine the law has furnished us, to go pick up my kid who feels no compunction whatsoever to observe that law."
I think this is too simple and say so.
"You think I'm being unfair," he surmises.
"No," I say. "That's not it." I can't set it up for him, the equation that will define Mal's place in all of our shifting lives.
Ian finds a spot in front of the building. "He won't be ready, you watch."
Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Richards