|November 2015 fiction issue|
Original Brasses, Fine Patina
A bit chilly in the air-conditioning, Helen sits on a bench in the American wing and waits for Cal to arrive. She imagines he selected this particular gallery because it would be lightly visited on a Monday afternoon, not like the Edward Hopper show, for which you have to pay an extra fee on top of the already expensive regular admission for the museum. Helen remembers when the museum was free, and she’d take the MTA here on Sunday afternoons to study objects covered in her art history survey or just to absorb the grace imparted by beautiful things. But nothing is ever really free. That year, and the next, had their costs in spite of her scholarship.
When choosing the museum for a meeting place, Cal couldn’t have guessed that as a scared college freshman she’d lurked in these halls eyeing Greek and Roman sculptures, trying to figure out if Cal’s male member was within some kind of normal range, or if he was in fact the freak she feared. She hadn’t understood erections, that’s how naïve and uneducated she’d been then—about things that actually counted. Freak or no, he’d succeeded in getting it inside her stubborn little hole, not without some pain and blood, and that’s why she’d given birth at Mt. Auburn Hospital the summer following her sophomore year, with a good deal more pain and blood.
A young Asian couple pause in front of a portrait of a bewigged gentleman, clasp hands, move on to gaze at a mahogany tea table set with Staffordshire and silver, preserved behind glass.
He’s late, but she might have expected that. Reluctant to meet her at all, not even very curious about her mission. With a name like Calvin Turnipseed he’d been a cinch to research on the Net; his e-mail address took her but a few minutes to locate. She learned that he’d used his degree in chemical engineering to secure a career in industry, was now retired and serving on the boards of several charities, a Boston-based chamber music ensemble, and a hospital—not Mt. Auburn. Google turned up a group photo that included Mrs. Dolores Turnipseed, smirking for the camera at a benefit dinner. “I’ll be in town soon,” Helen had written Cal, “and wonder if you and I might get together.” No reply for more than two weeks. She assumed her message had been zapped in his electronic trash basket, and then he did write, apologizing for not answering right away. He’d been in Europe, he claimed. Yes, he could find time to meet and suggested the Museum of Fine Arts, the 18th century gallery down at the far end of the American collection. Perhaps he’s had rendezvous here with other women, escaping Dolores, Helen thinks, and has already scouted out the territory. Dark rooms, sleepy guard. An old lady pushes another old lady in a wheelchair from one painting to the next, the women murmuring to one another. Is that how I’ll look to him? she wonders, aware of her own gray hair and creaky knees.
When he appears in the doorway she’s taken aback; if the forty-seven years since they last saw each other have not been particularly kind to her, they’ve been even less kind to him. Liver spots splotch his bare scalp and cheeks; his face has a distinct pallor; the paunch he carries on his beanpole frame is of the approximate size and placement of a six-months pregnancy. She squelches a laugh. “Helen,” he says, moving toward her on the bench. Will he kiss her? A peck on the cheek, perhaps? But no, he sits beside her and lays an oversized black umbrella between them. “Sorry to keep you waiting. My meeting ran late.”
“I’m not in any great hurry.”
“In Boston on vacation, did you say? Where do you live now, still Wisconsin?”
“I haven’t lived in Wisconsin since I was a girl,” Helen says.
Cal nods but asks no further questions. He was never good at small talk, and anyway, he’s certainly no more interested in exchanging details about children and grandchildren, illustrated with wallet photos, than she is. The guard strolls past them, affording them hardly a glance. For all he knows they are an old married couple: in any case, no obvious threat to the collection or to public decorum. Deciding she might as well come right to the point, she says, “I’ve heard from him. Our son.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Or from the agency, rather. He wants to find his birth parents, and the agency contacted me, to see if I was willing.”
“But the records were sealed.”
“Things have changed, Cal. Adoptees have rights, and they exercise them. What planet have you been living on?”
After a pause he asks, “What are you going to do?”
Although there’s no doubt in her mind that she’ll see her son—she has already given the agency her go-ahead—something makes her wary now about revealing this to Cal, so soon in the conversation. “Some days I’m inclined one way, some days another.”
Beside her Cal removes his glasses and digs at the inner corners of his eyes with his thumbs, a nervous gesture Helen remembers from all those years ago. Like her, he had an uncertain, vulnerable side then; otherwise she probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with him or let him do the things to her that he was bent on doing. But then what? No abortions other than the coat-hanger variety in those days. No marriage in the cards, either, not without money, not without love on his part—or more love than he could spare, anyhow. He had too many other fish to fry to consider acquiring a wife, raising a brat. To give him credit he did hang around in town that summer while she waited out the nine months, finding a shabby little sublet near Davis Square for them to stay in. He’d go out in the middle of the night to buy her pints of peanut brickle ice cream, if that’s what she was craving.
The steamy August morning she was released from Mt. Auburn he picked her up and drove her downtown to the bus terminal, his Beetle bouncing painfully over potholes. Without saying anything directly, both of them understood this would be the end of it. Impossible to go on as if nothing had happened. After he shoved her suitcase onto the rack above her seat he muttered something unintelligible; she willed herself not to watch him leave the platform. All the way to New York, Chicago, and at last Waukegan, she wept quietly, secretly, her bottom sore from the stitches, her breasts aching with milk that was just coming in. How was she going to hide from her mother these dismaying changes in her body, which nobody had told her about and which she’d never anticipated? How was she going to live without Cal, even if he was a rat who’d forsaken her? On the bright side, Helen thought, doing her best to console herself, she and the child wouldn’t have to go through life called Turnipseed.
“So what do you want from me?” Cal asks now.
“Aren’t you curious about him? Don’t you ever wonder how he turned out?”
The glasses go back onto his nose. “Helen, let me tell you something,” he says under his breath. “When we agreed to give him up I made a deliberate decision not to think about him, and I’ve stuck to that resolve. In no way did that baby belong to me, legally or otherwise.”
“You made damn sure of that.”
“We made damn sure of that. You were the one who signed the papers, don’t forget.”
“What choice did I have?”
“You had choices, Helen. You opted for the sensible way out of the mess, just as I did.”
“Sensible. As euphemisms go, that takes the cake.”
“What word would you use?”
“Craven,” she says, tears sharp in her eyes.
His voice tight, he says, “Have it your way,” and she thinks absurdly of all the times they ate at Hayes-Bickford’s in the Square and he’d invariably have the 99-cent special, no matter what it was that day, because if the meal cost more than 99 cents the state of Massachusetts charged a tax, but she’d order the hamburg plate, so delicious with fried onions and a scoop of mashed potatoes under mushroom gravy and a side dish of baby pickled beets swimming in their red juice, and he’d pay for the meal of her choice without grumbling, even if he had to pony up the tax.
For the first time this afternoon they look one another in the face. Can this old man whom she scarcely knows anymore and doesn’t even like have been that generous ice cream and hamburger-provider and the father of her firstborn child? His anger shows in the pinched white area around his mouth. She remembers the one time he hit her, during an argument over a book he’d borrowed from her and carelessly lost, an argument that was actually about far bigger issues—sexual pressure and mutual obligation and heedfulness and moral responsibility—but she was too shy and muddled to articulate them. She almost thinks he’d be capable of hitting her now, if not for the guard ghosting the periphery of the room and the pair of suburban matrons who have materialized and are inspecting a Philadelphia highboy. “Original brasses,” one of them says. “Just look at that patina.”
Cal reaches for his umbrella as if he’s going to get up and walk out. Good riddance, she thinks. But then, apparently changing his mind, he places the umbrella between his knees and, leaning forward, grips the bentwood handle. She guesses that, like hers, his spine is bothering him, sitting without back support. He stares straight ahead, perhaps at a portrait of a dark-browed young woman in silk, perhaps at nothing. Amid freckles and liver spots on his left hand is a small sore with a yellowing bruise around it. From her own fibroids surgery she recognizes the wound: an IV tube ran into that vein a short time ago. Europe, indeed.
After a while the matrons from Brookline or Newton move out of earshot and their calm chatter at the far end of the gallery seems to dissipate the tension. A cellphone rings; someone laughs out in the corridor. Cal extracts a handkerchief from his trousers pocket and mops his forehead.
Wearily he says, “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“When I read your e-mail,” he continues, stuffing the crumpled cloth back into his pocket, “it didn’t occur to me that the boy was the subject of this meeting. It never dawned on me that he’d popped up out of nowhere, after all this time. He’s not a boy, for Chrissake; he’s pushing fifty.”
“What else could I have wanted to talk about?”
He hesitates. “People our age sometimes have an impulse to tidy up loose ends before it’s too late. They might have health problems—a bad heart, say, or cancer.”
“I don’t have either. I’m not about to croak.”
“I’m happy to hear it, and that’s the truth.”
“And what about you?”
“I’m fine,” he says shortly.
Well, okay, she’s just as glad to take him at his word. “So you figured you were one of my loose ends?”
“I assumed the idea was for us to wish each other Godspeed, or something of the sort.”
Helen mulls this over. Godspeed. Maybe he has something there. Maybe a gentle farewell is precisely what she’s wanted all along, and the letter from the agency was the excuse she needed to go hunting for him on the Internet. In spite of a mostly compatible (if ho-hum) marriage and three dear (if at times disappointing) children, she never quite got over the crushing loss of her firstborn child and her first love. Not that she and Cal could ever have made a go of it, even if he’d been as willing to spring for a wedding ring as he was for a meal at the Bick. If she didn’t know that then, she does now.
“I’ll be frank,” he says. “It’s always been like a pebble in my shoe that we parted the way we did.”
That’s as close to an apology as she’s going to get, but she’ll take it. “Never mind, Cal. We were too dumb to know any better.” Buttoning her jacket, she says, “I gather I’m on my own in this situation.”
“So be it.”
“I have a request. If you do establish contact with him, I’d rather you didn’t mention me. At this point I can’t afford…” He stops himself there, but she’s pretty sure he isn’t referring to money.
She lays her hand on his, just for a second. “Don’t worry. I won’t betray you.”
Briefly she wonders if she should suggest tea in the museum café, now that they have achieved détente. Instead, though, she makes a show of consulting her watch and tells him that she’s meeting a friend at five and must be on her way. She leaves him meandering among the Copleys and Peales, a tall balding man, rather oddly shaped, somewhat stooped, a big black umbrella hooked over his arm.
|© Elaine Ford, 2015|