The Adoption
(Extract © 2017 by Eric Harrington Woro)
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Chapter 1

“We’ll give him up.”

“What are you talking about, give him up?” She knew what he meant but couldn’t admit to herself that the man she had married, this man she loved and admired, could be so cold-hearted.

“It’s simple,” he said. He was tall and lean, handsome with his long, sensitive face, recently trimmed flat top and goatee, and he wore blue gabardine work pants and a coffee-stained, sleeveless, white rayon undershirt. “We don’t have the money to give him a good home, so we’ll give him up for adoption and he’ll get the best from someone else who has the money. Not only the money but the love and the undying motivation.”

“You can’t just throw away your son like that!” she cried. She also sported long pants, dark green, zippered and uncuffed, with a thin leather belt. Her cream button-up blouse, gathered at the shoulder, contrasted nicely with her dark eyes and hair, and was loosely tucked in at the waist. “He belongs to us! He’s our responsibility!” She searched his face for some hint of sympathy. “It’s not simple, Jarvis.”

They heard the stuttering whimper of their baby in the next room. “Lower your voice,” said Jarvis. “It’ll be impossible to get him back to sleep.”

“I said, it’s not simple.”

“Actually, it is. It’s very simple. Feelings are nice but they don’t feed the baby. We’re dirt poor.” He paused to light a cigarette. “We ate Spam this morning. That was our breakfast. Yummy yummy Spam and Fruit Smack.”

“So what? It’s meat. Lots of people don’t even have that.”

“Spare parts animal meat.”

She stared at him but his eyes were hard, his face granite. She found no entry, could think of nothing to say that would move him. “He’s our son,” she repeated faintly.

“These are just words,” he said, with a dismissive gesture of the hand.

“What do you mean, just words? He’s our son. We’re a family.”

“Family? I asked you out because you had the biggest, uh, endowments of any girl I’d ever seen. We couldn’t do it enough—on the beach, under the bridge, on the floor, in the car . . . Nature wanted us to have a baby and we enjoyed every minute of this proxy love. Pretty soon we went to a man with a frock who has a special line in to the man upstairs and he put his hands on us and said we were man and wife. We exchanged round pieces of cheap metal called ‘rings’ and filled out some papers and the state designated us ‘man and wife.’ We had a child because some ejaculate penetrated your ovum and fertilized you. A zygote divided into blastomeres and an embryo developed. Nine months later a baby arrived and now it has to be fed. Our cat did the same thing earlier this year but she did it faster and produced more offspring because she’s a different species.”

The woman felt dizzy, felt like vomiting. “Proxy love?” she repeated in a whisper. “You always say that: ‘proxy love.’ What the hell is that, anyway?” It was another one of his “logical” pronouncements. His head would shake a little, as if in emphasis, a kind of personalized tremble at the end of a sonorous speech. Like a top turning at high speed and then faltering and skidding to a stop.

“‘Son’ is your emotion-charged word for a biological entity who shares our genetic structure, an entity that looks cute and makes you laugh and cry.” He puffed in greedy satisfaction on his cigarette. “Mostly cry, I’d say, if we keep this up.”

“Keep what up, Jarvis? That’s what I want to know.”

“Groveling like dirty rats in the poorhouse.”

“That’s what this is for you?”


“You’re in school. We’re just starting out. What do you expect?”

“That’s exactly my point, Dalia. I expect a lot more and I’m going to get a lot more if I finish school and get my goddamned Ph.D. I swear to God I’m not going to let anything stand in the way of that.”

“I take care of the baby, you have all your time to study.”

“I need more money for books,” he went on. “I need to take the bus to school so I can study, instead of sweating it up on foot every day, there and back. We need money for good food for two, instead of slop for three. Don’t you get it? It’s simple math. We can’t afford a baby.”

“But he’s here, Jarvis. And that is such an exaggeration! Babies don’t eat much. We’re not starving.”

“Not yet. Anyway we can’t do everything. Adoption is totally logical. He’ll get a good home and we’ll be able to move ahead the way we need to.”

“You don’t love him, do you? You don’t care.”

“Love, Dalia? What is love? I love your body, for sure. We both know what you love.”

“So it’s all just biology to you?”

“I’ve told you a hundred times you should read Darwin,” said Jarvis. “And Freud. Instead, you read fashion magazines, like that’s ever going to get us anywhere. There are all these layers upon layers and we have all this emotion-charged language, these buzzwords we’ve heard all our lives and repeat to ourselves like some kind of damned savages chanting by the fire under the moonlight. They’re like buttons we push that trigger all this behavior, but underneath it’s just the human species perpetuating itself like any other species.”

“So ‘love’ and ‘family’ are just buzzwords to you?”

“You have to get under what things mean, Dalia. You can’t just take things on the surface. You have to ask questions. You have to understand why we act in certain ways. Why some idea or another has such authority over our lives. Why does a priest, for example, have the authority to pronounce us married or anything else? We go through the ritual and pay the fee and bingo, we’re married.”

“I can’t argue with you, Jarv. You know that. But I still think you’re an asshole.”

Answering with cold unemotionality, he said: “I’m not going to respond to that.”

“I’m starting to think you’re not capable of love. You don’t even know what it is, do you? You talk about sweat and heart palpitations and Darwin and biology but you don’t have a clue what it really is.”

“And you think by shouting the words ‘baby’ or ‘son,’ or ‘family,’ our kneejerk emotional reactions are going to deliver wise answers to difficult questions? So I don’t even need my rational mind? Sorry, but it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.”

“It isn’t for me.”

He looked at her with large, glowering, unsympathetic, dark eyes. “I know.”

. . .

“So then, what did she say?”

“She didn’t say anything. She never says anything.”

“Not true, Jarvis,” said Adam, wagging a finger. “She’s a regular motor mouth and you know it.”

“Sure, but she never says anything deep.”

“She doesn’t have to. If you know what I mean.”

Jarvis raised an eyebrow. Should he point out that his comment was inappropriate?

“What?” said Adam. “I knew her before you did.” He was in his early twenties, good-looking in his cotton twill khakis and green wool flannel Army shirt, and he was bright, like Jarvis. He sat back in his chair with an odd expression on his face, half modest and half defiant.

Jarvis sighed. “I know. I just don’t think her physical beauty will keep me interested for a lifetime.”

“Money is the only thing that will keep you interested for a lifetime.”

“Well,” said Jarvis, “I can’t say that I disagree with you. But you make me sound pretty shallow.”

“You’re not shallow,” said Adam, “you’re hollow. It was your childhood. You’ve got a big hole inside and you have to fill it.”

“I love having such sympathetic friends.”

“You love me because I’m honest.”

“It’s true,” said Jarvis. “But you could at least suggest it’s some kind of philosophical hole—something more dignified.”

“Something more dignified. Sure, okay,” said Adam with a smile. “Philosophy is the only thing that will keep you interested for a lifetime.”

“Jerk,” Jarvis retorted. “You’re just full of yourself today, aren’t you?”

“I’m feeling pretty good about a couple of things, yes. Starting with a small investment in a small enterprise in a small country in the southern hemisphere.”

“Well, never mind about you. Does this mean I have a dozen marriages and divorces ahead of me? Dalia was the first, but look at the string of losers before her. And I really thought this was the real thing, this time.”

“It’s amazing how the breasts of Venus can envelop your mind with illusion. Maya, Maya—”

“Please don’t tell me that’s all it was.”

“You’re twenty-three years old, Jarvis, recently sprung from prison after two long years of hellish isolation with the worst of the human species. Because of your size, your temperament and your incomparable musculature, you survived without any of the more unspeakable indignations, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. I was there.”

“You were there, serving an unbearably long sentence for something unbearably stupid, and you managed to get out unscathed, relatively speaking.” He winked.

“Don’t wink at me like that, you faggot.”

“When an individual survives something like that, he changes in one of three important ways.”

“Tell me, Friedrich.”

“Friedrich is your favorite philosopher, not mine.”

“All right, just say.”

“In the first place he might become more consciously and committedly religious, hoping and believing that his guardian angels are truly there for him. Or, second, he doesn’t get religion, but instead finds the source of all his strength and good luck inside, possibly even to the point of egomania. After all, he has emerged from the cave after slaying the Minotaur. He might think that after that, he could literally do anything. Anything.

“And finally?”

“Finally, he might be dull enough to consider it a piece of good luck without any special significance, and resolve to be more careful in the future—careful to stay out of jail.”

“I guess that’s where I come down. So I’m the dullard.”

“Are you, Jarvis?” He winked at him again. “I’d bet on the egomania, myself.”

“Well, I sure as hell am never going back there again, I can tell you that much.” He paused. “And you can stop that swishy winking you’re always doing.”

“My mind is made up. You’ve got no religion, but you’re sure-fire full of yourself. Especially on this post-war frontier, this happy young society, this suburban dreamscape we’re inhabiting now. 1949, Pax Romana, work simple and drive a convertible. Celebrate on the weekends! Pollen is in the wind.”

“Pollen was sure in my wind.”

“But my point was,” said Adam, “along comes this beautiful East European doll, this exotic musician type, and you, the new conqueror emerging from Abaddon with scalps in your chamois bag, you waltz up and bed her and wed her, and she gives you a son. Who knows, maybe there is even a political dimension there too.”

“I think it was her grandfather from around there. Her father was probably from Brazil—an itinerant musician. She’s homegrown.”

“She plays the balalaika, okay? Who knows who the father was.”

“She doesn’t, and neither did her mother, apparently. Or so she says.”

“But that’s not the point, Jarvis.”

“Well, you make it all sound mythically superb.”

“It would be superb for most folk. But you, with your new ego forged in the fires of hell, it’s not good enough for you.”

“Lots of people sentimentalize raising children. I don’t think there’s anything easy or particularly rewarding about it.”

“Well . . . that’s exactly right. I mean, that’s exactly you.”

“I don’t have time to raise a child,” said Jarvis.

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I’ve got to finish my education. I made up my mind in prison—I know how to get where I want to go. It’s in academia. It’s absolutely the best and only way to go.”

“You’re preaching to the choir.”

“I don’t mind working for it. Sure, that was an exciting chase up the coast of California, all high-speed and guns and all the rest. But you’re right, it was just stupid. I’m not going to be stupid like that again.”

“What about Dalia?”

“We should have been more careful. I don’t know how it happened.”

Don laughed. “Sure, you’re the first one this has happened to.”

“I think adoption is the best thing for him.”

“And Dalia? Is that the best thing for her?”

“Dalia isn’t capable of raising him. With or without me.”

“This will break her. You know it will break her. Her head is already fragile enough. She was born to play the balalaika, not suffer this hard-core sorrow.”

“My point exactly. And I have to do what is right for me.”

“Have you told her yet that you’re going to divorce her?”

“No,” said Jarvis, “I haven’t. I’m working on it. The first thing is to get Django into an agency. After that, I’ll deal with the second part.”

“Do you think she suspects?”

“I don’t know. How the hell should I know what she thinks?” He stood up from the table and took his hat. “I have to do what’s right for me. I don’t want to talk about it any more.”

“Easy, my friend,” said Adam, raising his hands in a peacemaking gesture. “I’m on your side.”

“I appreciate that,” said Jarvis. “But you’re pressing me about the wife. I have to protect myself against that stress. I have to stay focused.”

“Forgive me, Jarv, but she’s a little more than just ‘the wife.’ Need I remind you of our collective histories—”

“You needn’t remind me. I understand. But I’ve made my choices and now I have to get on with it.”

“Get on with it, then,” said Adam. “And may you conquer a thousand kingdoms.”

“Thank you. I intend to.”


Chapter 2

“He’s a monster,” said Dalia, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“I know you can’t hear me now,” said Bridget, her friend, “but you need to forget about him, just get him out of your mind. Django is in a good agency, a good rich family will find him, and he’ll have a good life. Time to buckle up, Dalia.”

She shook her head and burst into tears again. “I can’t! It’s not that easy!”

Her friend put her arms around her and held her. “I know. I know.”

Dalia went over to the kitchen table to find her cigarettes.

“Talk to me more,” said Bridget. She had on a peasant-style, white cotton blouse with a square neckline, and a striped skirt.

“Not a lot to tell you. I saw that astrologer and she said he’d be a brilliant musician but have a shattered home life. Well, that’s not exactly what she said. Something about Neptune in the fifth and Pluto in the fourth house. Violent evolution or something.”

“Forget it, that’s a lot of hooey and you know it. Except he’ll be a great musician, but you already know that.”

“It didn’t sound like hooey.”

“I’m sorry to say it, honey, but you have to find a way to move on.”

Dalia, holding a handkerchief over her nose, nodded briefly.

“Forget the soothsayers and all of them. Preachers and priests, too. They’re all full of it.”

“She was really nice, though. She said he had guardian angels.”

“What’s that from,” said Bridget, smirking. “Neptune in the fifth?”

“No. Jupiter midheaven.”

“Pshaw! You can’t listen to that.” She saw the deep sadness in her friend’s eyes. “Oh come here, hon, I’m not saying anything, don’t listen to me. Of course Django will have guardian angels, I don’t doubt it for one minute.”

Dalia sniffled and wiped her nose. She found her cigarettes in the drawer next to the refrigerator.

“What about you?” said Bridget. “What are you going to do now?”

Dalia exhaled with her eyes closed. Then she said, “I have no idea, Bridget. I might enlist, take them up on that option for school after. You know.”

“Yeah, a lot of people are doing that nowadays. Remember Phyllis? She got a terrific situation over in Europe, in France I think it was. She signed up for four years. They take care of you while you’re in, and then after, too, like you said.”

Dalia shrugged. “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t stay around here, I’ll die. I need to get as far away as I can from this place.”

“You don’t have to say that, hon. I understand.”

“I mean, we signed these papers you know, and it’s all sealed up forever and Django will never be able to find me—and it’s forever.” She took a drag off her cigarette and exhaled slowly, eyes wide. “I hate him,” she said after a minute.

Her friend also lit up a cigarette. “You’ll get far away, put some time and distance in, and you’ll meet another guy, and you’ll be okay.”

“I don’t want any man again.”

“Of course that’s how you feel now, but that will change.”


“Not maybe, but one hundred percent for sure.”

“Did you know that we’re just biological entities?” Dalia said.

“What do you mean?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Just something my lovely husband used to talk about. I had all these ideas about husband and wife and family, you know. But he told me the real truth about things. Nature, and Darwin, and all the rest. The real truth.”

“That’s not the real truth, and the bastard doesn’t know a goddam thing, and he’s not your husband any more, either.”

“No, he isn’t.”

“So get on with it. You’re extremely young and beautiful, and you will find a good husband, and you’ll have a nice family.”

“I don’t want any of that any more.”

“Sure you do, sweetheart, you just don’t know it yet. You’re hurting.”

“No, I don’t think so. You’re right about the hurt. And I’m tired of hurting. I just—I’m not going to let all that happen to me again.”

Bridget gave her friend a long, concerned look. “Time heals all wounds, Dalia. You just have to be patient, let the healing take place. Are you coming over for bridge this evening?”

“Sure,” said Dalia. “I wouldn’t miss it for a million bucks.”

Chapter 3

Stephen Schiller, a child of five with deep-set, russet brown eyes and an impressionable face, finished tying his shoelaces and ran to his mother for permission to play outside. She was on her hands and knees cleaning a corner of the kitchen with a toxic-smelling liquid, and she looked up at him briskly with her stern, gunmetal gray eyes and frowned. “Put on your jacket,” she said.

“But Mommy, it’s sunny outside.”

“Don’t argue with me.” She put down the foul rag and stood up. “It’s in your closet.”

He did not turn, but continued to stand there, gazing inquisitively at her. She took him roughly by the arm and led him to his room. “Get it. Put it on now.” When she released him, he rubbed his arm where she had gripped him. Reluctantly, head lowered, he went to the closet to retrieve his beige jacket. “That’s right,” she said. “Put that on. I’ll be back in a moment to check on you.”

Stephen’s room, devoid of all appointments, was barren-looking for a child’s room. The design, lacking any personal touch, was not his doing. He merely complied with his parents’ rules, one of which was never to hang anything on any of the walls (except for a map over his desk, which his parents had placed with exact measures of tape in a mathematically perfect rectangle). Even though his father was no longer active in the service, he governed the household as if he were a brigade commander and inspections might take place at any moment. No chaos was allowed in any way, shape or form: no dust, no debris, nothing unwarranted on the floor or the window sill or under the bed. Clothes were stacked neatly in the closets and everything was picture perfect. And never anything on the walls. Someday the house would have to be resold, and when it was, there must be no damage to the precious mahogany that made the interiors so valuable on the open market. The exception was just outside the room in the long hallway, where framed photos hung on the ruddy walls by means of adhesive hangers which could be removed and cleaned up later on without any fuss. Stephen’s room had a warm feeling, even without any personal accents, because of the beautiful color and grain of the Cuban mahogany; but it was empty except for his bed and his desk, and a cushionless Windsor chair. He parked his shoes in the closet in their allotted space, and always kept the closet doors closed as instructed by his parents.

His room was arguably no worse than the living room, where almost all of the furniture was kept under plastic sheeting to preserve it from wear and dust. Stephen’s father had a polyester pushback recliner which he sat in every evening, smoking cigarettes and reading crime novels or watching TV, and on one side of his chair was an anodized aluminum ashtray, which he filled with Winston cigarette butts at the rate of two or three an hour, and on the other a round side table where he kept cigarettes, lighter, and one or two books. Beside that was a nickel plated gray floor lamp which furnished sufficient light to illuminate that small but important section of the living room, allowing him to read comfortably. It also furnished light for Stephen’s mother, who sometimes sat in the upholstered armchair next to the lamp. Their chairs were never covered with any kind of slipcovers or furniture protectors, but the rest of the living room looked like a carefully tended museum, or mausoleum, and neither Stephen nor Belinda, his sister, ever spent any time there, as there was nowhere comfortable to sit.

When his mother returned, she inspected him carefully, from his T-shirt and jacket down to the laces on his small canvas sneakers. She took him by the hand down the long hall to the back door. They passed the half-dozen pictures of Stephen’s father in military attire, amateurish pictures framed in lightweight flat black certificate frames behind reflecting glass. They hung in two rows on opposite sides of the hall, above Stephen’s head. A silver eagle grasping a bundle of arrows in its talons was visible on Colonel Schiller’s shoulder in several of the photos. It was a ceremony in which he presented valor awards to several members of his Army brigade.

“Get along, now. Don’t go where I can’t see you.”

She went into the kitchen, where she could watch him from the window. She was happy in the cheerful, colorful kitchen her husband had provided for her—proud of it because she remembered the filthy place she had come from, not so long ago. It was from before the War, before they even came to the United States from Ireland, but she still thought about those awful times, so deeply etched in her memory. Back then she had to help her mother with the food on that horrible stove that looked like a big, fat, ugly toad and made monstrous sounds and smells and took forever to clean. Now she had an electric range with a hooded ventilator, stainless steel counter, enameled steel cabinets and every modern convenience.

She was not tall, but she had ample breasts and looked quite fierce with her erect stance, smooth brown hair up in a jaw clip, thin, no-nonsense lips and small pointed teeth. She had a round face and eyes set close together, like those of a barn owl. Today she wore a dusty blue mid-length day dress with white rubber and canvas bath sandals.

“Reginald!” she called out.

He arrived a moment later, dressed in his tennis whites. Quite fierce-looking himself, he was five foot nine with dark, obsidian eyes, and had a colonel’s buzzcut and a pencil moustache. His brows, now bushy, gave away his age, as did the maturity of his sloping shoulders and upper torso, and a belly now accustomed to the best American beer. He was not a fat man, because he smoked a pack of cigarettes every day and played tennis on the weekends. But he was no longer the agile street boxer that he had been in urban Philadelphia in his youth. “I’m here,” he said, smiling affably at his buxom wife. He looked approvingly at her figure. Their marriage was not without problems, but to possess a woman with such a fine bustline was a supreme joy.

“He’s playing in the back right now,” she said. “Are you going over to the Harick place?”

“Yes, I am. What about Belinda?”

“Gabby’s parents will pick her up soon,” said Anna. “She’ll have dinner there, and they’ll bring her back at seven this evening.”

“Good,” he replied. “I’m off now.” He gave her a curt kiss on the cheek and turned to leave. “I’ll call you if there are any changes.”

“Have a nice afternoon,” she said in a quiet voice. All her world was focused on this strong man, this WWII colonel who had marched with Patton’s army into the evil darkness of Germany. Anna had seldom been impressed with men in her life, but this man was strong and uncompromising, and she felt safe with him.

Stephen looked out across the broad cement patio to the manicured lawn and garden behind, to the fence surrounding, and to the eucalyptus trees extending down the incline of their property line to the canyons beyond. Pyracantha covered the fence at the rear with brilliant orange berries on an impenetrable thicket. A swallowtail butterfly with broad, velvety black and yellow wings floated across the yard and out the gate towards the end of the driveway. Large mellow bumblebees filled their bags with pollen in sleepy, random sequences from one flower to the next. A hummingbird drank nectar from a hibiscus flower, then shot off suddenly up and over the fence into the mysterious beyond.

His gaze fell to the patio, where a jagged crack in the cement extended from the lemon tree to the steps leading down to the lawn. The fissure had appeared after a recent earthquake. Stephen liked the earthquakes in southern California. They made him dizzy and filled his imagination with grandiose images and thunderous sounds like divine voices. The ground moved beneath him, sometimes shaking tremulously, at other times swelling up and down in broader undulations. His parents were terrified of earthquakes but he liked them. He imagined that God held the earth in his hands and moved it from time to time. He liked it when the world came alive like that.

Anna was very upset to discover the long crack in the cement after the earthquake that shook the cans off the shelves in the pantry. She was at first relieved that their new house had sustained no damage, but the crack, only discovered the next day, put the lie to her relief and sense of security. Now it would be a reminder that there were dangerous and powerful forces that could strike them at any time. Colonel Schiller understood that the cost of fixing the patio was not worth the trouble, and shrugged it off. But Anna pleaded with him still.

“It looks terrible, Reggie, I hate it! Please, let’s get it fixed.”

“It’s too much money, Anna, and besides, another earthquake could crack the foundation again. It’s silly to spend such money. It doesn’t look so bad, anyway. This is California. We have earthquakes. This is reality.”

“I hate it, I hate seeing it that way!”

“Calm down, Anna.”

She stared resentfully at the crack until he put his arm around her and led her back inside. But when she went to the sink to wash dishes, she looked out the window and there was the crack again. It would always be there, a constant reminder of her vulnerability. Her mortality.

Stephen walked across the patio and sat down beside the crack in the cement. It was sunny and hot outside. The heat came up in waves off the deck. He took off his jacket and threw it onto the nearby chaise longue. His mother stood by the sink in the window, watching him. He looked away.

The heat made him sleepy. He stretched out on his side and put his finger in the crack, feeling its coolness. Scents of earth and life in the earth, moist and rich, rose up from below the foundation. He thought he smelled earthworms and other unnamed creatures of the dark underworld. It made him giddy, somehow nostalgic, with weird longings. He smiled, and began to hum a tune from a song he had heard recently.

“What is that stupid song?” Belinda Schiller, his sister, was two years older. She parted her mouse brown hair down the middle and tied up the two sides into pigtails, securing them with rubber bands. She had hazel eyes and a bad complexion from her oily skin. Even at seven, she already had perpetual acne, which her father preferred to call “dermatitis,” and not only on her face and forehead. She had blemishes and small scars on her chest and back, too. To Stephen, she was just always dirty.


“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” Belinda mimicked sardonically. She had been trying to jump over a rope attached to the side of the house, but it was difficult in her flip-flops. She approached Stephen. “What are you doing?”

“Looking at the crack.”

“That’s stupid.”


“Because, stupid, it’s just a crack. There’s nothing there.”

Stephen did not reply.

“Come on,” said Belinda, “let’s do something.”

“Like what?”

She held a deck of cards in her hand. “Let’s play Crazy Eights.”

“What do you want to play that for?”

“I like it, dummy.”

“Quit calling me that.”

She looked at his slight body sprawled out on the cement. “Okay. But come on, let’s play.”

“I don’t want to play that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s boring.” He continued staring at the crack in the pavement.

“Well, you really are stupid, then!” she snapped, annoyed, and ran off across the lawn and out the gate.

Stephen turned his head and glanced over at the kitchen window. His mother, thinking about how different the kids’ biological families must have been, was still there, eyes wide, watching, listening. He turned away.

His attention was caught by a streak of color beyond the edge of the patio near the water faucet. He ran over to see what it was. It was hidden in the thick grass hugging a galvanized steel pole where a faucet was mounted. There was a slow, steady drip from the faucet. When Stephen approached, the animal fled from its hiding place and took off across the lawn.

It was a small garter snake, less than a foot long. Stephen rushed towards it and stopped short, rushed again in pursuance and stopped again. Its sinuous movement and camouflage colors were fantastic. Stephen watched in admiration as it quickly traversed the distance from the edge of the lawn to the garden and fence at the rear.

He heard the screen door swing shut and turned to see his mother rushing down the patio stairs towards him. “What is it?” she cried.

Stephen looked back but the snake was gone. “It was fast,” he said.

“A snake?”

“Yes. But not very big.”

“I hate snakes.” Her eyes narrowed. “I saw you run after it. I want you to stay away from them. They’re dangerous, do you understand me?”

He nodded, skeptically. He thought the snake was beautiful.

“Are you listening to me, Stephen?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“You don’t know about these things. You do what I say.”

He nodded again. But he avoided her eyes, looking down at the ground instead.

Anna fixed her gray eyes on him as though she could psychically compel him to heed her withering stare, but he did not look up. He hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his pants and shuffled his feet.

“Ten more minutes,” she declared at last. “Ten minutes, boy, and I want you inside, ready for lunch.”

“Okay.” He was ready to dart out the gate into the back beyond, but he waited for her to move away. It would be the signal that would release him. She turned but then cried out suddenly: “Stephen! Stay behind me, do not move!”

“What is it?”

“It’s a tarantula! Stay right where you are! Do not move, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

Stephen gazed at the curious animal as it walked ponderously down the narrow cement lane that circumscribed the lawn. It was several inches tall but its leg span was twice that, and the hairy legs were metallic blue. The spider had jagged fangs coming from its mouth. Overall it was amazingly large but to Stephen it seemed old, without grace, bringing up each leg slowly as if in a reticence of pain, a spidery arthritis.

In the space of a few seconds, Anna retrieved a garden hoe from the shed beyond the gate, raised it up above her head and brought it down onto the tarantula, who might have sensed her approaching vibrations on the ground but was not built to flee danger. Stephen winced and turned away. The hoe severed the spider’s body in half. Stephen forced himself to look back again. The legs twitched and writhed. Anna brought the hoe down several more times, dividing up the dying body into eight or ten pieces.

“It’s very poisonous,” she instructed her son. “Don’t touch anything. I’ll get a bag and clean it up.”

Stephen gazed at the head of the spider, which lay cock-eyed in a heap of hairy forelegs and mashed substance on the walk. It had many small eyes—eight altogether. The eyes looked stupid to him, small orbs that apprehended the world but understood nothing.

Anna swept the body parts into a bag. Stephen went out the gate to play on the swings behind the fence.

“Ten minutes!” reverberated her commanding voice.

He sat thinking about the snake and the tarantula. The world was wild and dangerous. It was full of strange animals with beautiful colors and surprising characteristics, like the eyeballs and hairy body of the tarantula. He knew about black widow spiders too. He had seen one in their garage and his mother had killed it after he told her. She sprayed something on it and it trembled and seized up and finally fell dead on the floor. He could smell the poison in the air.

His sister had told him, the day before, that they were “adopted” from different families when they were babies. He didn’t understand it, exactly, except that Reginald and Anna were not his real parents. Belinda had explained it to him with a kind of triumphant snarl on her face, as if it proved something she was anxious to have openly confirmed once and for all. But for Stephen it was all distant, beyond a threshold of knowing, something in a dense fog. He had no way to think about it. Belinda had also told him yesterday that Santa Claus was not real and neither were the reindeer pulling his sleigh. She laughed about that too, as if exposure of that myth underlined her main point even further. But he did not grasp what her main point was, except that perhaps his parents were liars. She didn’t say it, explicitly.

“We’re not even brother and sister,” she had said. “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Because we don’t come from the same parents, stupid.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“Well, you are if you ask that question.”

“You’re the one who’s stupid.”

“Why is that?”

“Because you’re always calling me stupid.”

“That’s enough,” said Anna, suddenly appearing in the doorway. She had been listening from the hallway. “You go to your room, Belinda.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“I didn’t say you did. Now go to your room. That’s quite enough.”

“You told me to tell him!”

“And you did that. Now go to your room.”

Belinda left, muttering something indecipherable. Stephen gazed up at his mother.

“What she said is true,” said Anna. “We decided you were old enough to know.”

He did not reply.

“Put on your shoes and come out to the kitchen. I have lunch for you.”

“Yes, Mommy.”

Now, sitting on the swing seat in the back yard, he remembered the conversation and he went over it in his mind. He decided that being adopted didn’t mean anything in particular to him. There was an obscure glimmer in the idea of a different family origin from Belinda’s, but nothing else. He could already feel that he had almost nothing in common with her. When he was much younger, she had attempted to train him to use the toilet, and he remembered that, and his mother mentioned it occasionally. But for the rest, he hardly knew anything about her. They weren’t allowed in each other’s rooms, and Anna was very strict about it. He saw his sister at dinner time every day, at five o’clock sharp, but nobody talked at dinner besides Anna, who gave a perpetual soliloquy on the perils of Communism and the dangers of an imminent takeover of America by socialist liberals and college professors, sanctioned by treasonous Communists in the State Department. The speech never changed, although it was complicated and she could easily make it go on for more than an hour. Her husband never interrupted and the children never talked. But other than that daily gathering, Stephen hardly ever saw his sister. He had no idea how she spent her day or what she did in the evening, besides sit in her room alone.

He also spent his evenings in his room alone, with the door closed, mostly reading or thinking about things, or going over conversations in his mind. He remembered them verbatim, for the most part, and sometimes recited them quietly to himself, if he was sure nobody could hear him. His father always reclined in his chair in the living room, and Anna sat next to him in her chair. They couldn’t hear him with the TV on.

The cigarette smoke irritated Stephen’s eyes, so he always shut his door when he sat in his room, just as Belinda did. All things considered, it was best to withdraw quietly in this manner, and to keep people out.

Chapter 4

Belinda was trying on her pink and white gingham dress with white sandals, but she had another migraine and her knee hurt.

“If you don’t tell me what happened,” said Anna, “we won’t know whether to take you for an X-ray or not.”

“I don’t know,” she snapped. “I think I bumped it on the door going into the garage, but I don’t remember.”

“It’s time to remember,” Anna insisted.

“I don’t remember!” Belinda screamed.

“Lower your voice or I’ll call your father in here. Is that what you want?”

“I don’t care, I have a migraine and my knee hurts!” She started to pace, back and forth, with a limp.

“Quit pacing,” Anna commanded her. “Sit down on the bed.”

“No!” Belinda cried.

Anna grabbed her by the arm and pushed her down on the bed. Belinda was a strong child, but she was still only seven years old.

“Leave me alone!”

Anna had intended to examine Belinda’s knee, but in the din of her angry shrieks and her foul mood, she lost her temper. “Shut your mouth!” she ordered.

“I won’t shut my mouth!” cried Belinda.

Anna shook her head in exasperation. She turned Belinda over prone, pulled down her panties and started striking her on the buttocks with her bare hand. “Damn it!” she blurted out, shaking her hand from the smarting pain. “Christ Almighty!” Looking angrily around the room, her eyes fastened onto a medium-sized hand mirror atop Belinda’s chest of drawers. Still holding Belinda down, she leaned across and seized the mirror. She used it, glass side up, to spank Belinda with swift strong strokes.

The more she spanked her, the more Belinda screamed and wrestled, trying to escape. The more she tried to escape, the angrier Anna became, and the harder her swats with the hand mirror. Suddenly it broke, and when it did, dozens of tiny shards flew about in every direction.

Startled, Anna released her grip on her daughter momentarily, and when she did, the child tried to crawl off the bed. Anna still held her by the ankle, but only tenuously, and as Belinda grabbed the table with one hand but had to protect her back side with the other, she was cut by pieces of broken glass.

“What in the hell is going on here?” cried Reginald, suddenly appearing in the doorway. He was in his tan wool poplin pants and a plaid print sport shirt with short sleeves. When he came inside and saw the horrific spectacle, his eyes went cold and hard, and a special fury rose up inside him. Blood was everywhere—on the child’s dress, on her hands, on Anna, on the sheets and pillows, even a tiny handprint on the top edge of the desk.

“What in God’s name?” Reginald muttered. Belinda had been screaming as if possessed by a demon, but went silent upon seeing her father. Now she slid down to the floor by her desk, gasping for air and gazing horror-struck at her hands. “What did you do?” he said to her in an ominous tone.

“Papa, I didn’t do anything, I didn’t!” she cried.

“What did she do?” he said, turning to Anna.

“She was fighting me back and she broke the mirror.”

“That’s not true!” cried Belinda. “She was spanking me with it!”

“I swatted her a few times and she resisted me and—well, you can see.”

He took the child into the bathroom and, donning his reading glasses, which hung on a strap around his neck, carefully examined her hands, picking out the pieces one by one, while Anna removed the blanket and bed linens and cleaned the whole area with a vacuum cleaner.

“You should talk to her,” said Anna later on.

“I’ve tried talking to her before. It does no good.”

“What about taking her to that shrink?”

“Jensen? Yes, I might.”

“You see how she is.” She tied off the belt of her floral print apron and retrieved the fingernail scissors from her front pocket. “She’s always angry and defiant, always talking back, disobedient, can’t pay attention to a book long enough to read even a single chapter. Always fidgeting, doesn’t wash her hands or clean her room at all unless I’m standing over her. I can’t get her to do anything. She was complaining about her knee and I tried to sit her down to take a look at it. That’s when all hell broke loose. She’s a mess and I’m fed up with it.”

Reginald nodded. “I know. Half the time she complains about aches and pains that are nonexistent.”

“That’s why I wanted to check her knee, but she would have none of it.”

“Damned hypochondriac. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’ll give Jensen a call.”

“You should, if there’s nothing you can say to her.”

He shook his head. “I can’t get into it with her any more. You know that. You insisted on adopting that girl even though I told you I didn’t want one.”

“We went through that before, Reggie. People have two kids these days, not one.”

“Who cares what other people do?”

“We care. People look at us.”


“Four is the right number for a family. Not three.”


“Your reputation is the most important thing in the world. Or have you forgotten?”

He looked down.

“I’m not bringing up anything from Santa Cruz,” she added. “I’m just reminding you of what has always been true.”

“You couldn’t speak this way to me if it were not for Santa Cruz,” said Reginald sullenly.

In a paradoxical way, she was glad he had screwed that nurse in Santa Cruz and got caught. Now, at least, she had a little more freedom in things. There had been incidents between them over the years when she had literally feared for her life when he lost his temper. That, at least, was gone—a thing of the past.

“I haven’t said anything about that since we moved. I swore a new beginning with you here and I have kept up my part of the bargain.”

“You have. I don’t deny that.”

“About the girl, I just mean that we have the perfect family—a boy and a girl—and you know that’s very important these days. People look at you a little weird if you don’t have children, or if you only have one.”

“So now you’re attacking my masculinity?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Anna. “You are my king. I don’t have to tell you that.”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Getting shocked on that faulty machine could have killed you. Then where would I be? Where would any of us be?”

He saw tears coming to her eyes. “Don’t get emotional, Anna.”

“I’m not attacking you, Reggie. None of that was your fault. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“But you’re right,” he conceded. “We’re stuck with Belinda. At least the other one reads and does what you tell him, doesn’t he?”

“Yes. He never talks back to me.”

“That’s good. I was doubtful at first, what with him being nine months old, and his legs and all. But he’s coming along, isn’t he?”

“His legs are fine now, and I’m sure he’s going to do well in school.”

He looked at her wearily. “I’m happy, Anna. I am.” He lit a cigarette. “I’m just trying to get some peace and quiet in my evenings, I work like a slave all day long.”

“Don’t trouble yourself any more over her. I admit it’s my fault for pushing you in Oakland. I thought she was really cute.”

“It’s my fault for—”

She put her finger to his lips. “No. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. She just looked cuddly and cute. And frankly I was really tired of the never-ending questions from all our neighbors. ‘Don’t you have any children yet?’ ‘What are you waiting for?’ All that innuendo, all the time, and kids running all over the place. It drove me crazy.”

“Well, she was three days old. She could have been Adolf Hitler and you would have thought she was cute.”

“That’s not funny,” she replied.

He shrugged.

“But I suppose you’re right,” said Anna, taking a stern breath. “Let’s call the psychiatrist and have him take care of it. There’s no reason for you to get into it. You go relax. Do you want me to make you a drink?”

“Double scotch, on the rocks.”

“Double scotch for my king.”

He turned on the TV and sat back in his reclining chair. His cigarette had burned down to his fingers. He put it out and lit another.

She brought his drink. “Anna,” said Reginald.

“Yes, darling.”

“I have another idea. Maybe we should take them to church, like we talked about before.”

“Do you want me to?”

He nodded. “Yes. We need some extra help with the girl. Just beating her all the time when she’s bad doesn’t seem to work. Maybe Spock was right, after all.”

“I don’t remember what he said about that.”

“Church will help. Put the fear of God in her, as they say. Maybe not right away, but over time.”

“Okay. We can do that. You’re playing tennis on Sundays, and I’ll take them to church. Are you still going to call Jensen?”

“Yes, we can do both. Maybe get help from two angles, so to speak.”

“I’m on board, all the way. Anything for my king.”

“Good, it’s settled.” He turned back to the TV and she went to the kitchen.

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