Octavia is four years old and her hair is quite fine, honey brown, bangs. She has the largest eyes Serena has seen on a child since she lost her own Oscar, with his black pupils and lashes curled back.
“Octavia,” Serena says, “your hands are so dirty. Don’t put them in your mouth.”
Octavia’s been planting beans without gardening gloves. Her mother’s so clean and precise she’d die herself to see the way Serena lets Octavia gather handfuls of soil and worms, lets her pat the dirt around the slim stems of the bean plants.
Pretty soon they’ll have plants up to the top of the fence. Serena gives Octavia the hearty variety of bean plants and the sunniest space in the yard. This way her plant will grow sturdy even without the care she gives her own, and the child will be rewarded with more beans than her family could give away at a church bazaar — if anyone could imagine those people giving away anything.
“These will be so tall,” Serena tells her.
Octavia’s smiling. “Tall as the sky?” she asks.
“Tall as the sky,” says Serena and then Octavia says, “Like Jack.”
Serena has to think about that one, who this tall Jack is and whether Octavia’s forgetting Serena doesn’t live in Jack’s neighborhood or go to Jack’s school, that Octavia only comes to the crowded row neighborhood until her mother comes to get her.
Who’s Jack? Serena starts to say and then she thinks, oh, that Jack, feeling a little stupid but, too, glad she hadn’t blurted out the question. Octavia’s real fond of fairy tales and make believe. Serena never got around to reading her three sons that stuff. She figured the houses up on Henderson’s Bluff, around where Octavia’s mother grew up, were about as much of a fairy tale as George or Ben or Oscar could handle. Then the little one got sick and just being able to run and play “Duck, Duck, Goose” at his friends’ birthday cookouts would have been a true-life Happily-Ever-After to Oscar. Nah, Serena couldn’t see reading him about golden geese, or princesses relieved of their chores to go to a grand ball and be swept off their glass slippered feet.
But Octavia’s got her own bedroom and even her puppy’s coat is shinier than Oscar’s future ever seemed to be, even when he was fine. So Octavia reads it all — the frog becoming a prince, the guy whose hands turn everything to gold. Octavia’s hands are anything but golden now.
“Octavia,” Serena says, “don’t put that slimy thumb up so close to your nose.” She’s streaked her left cheek with worm gut and now someone’s really going to have to scrub her before her mother shows up and collects her.
Mrs. Allendale won’t appreciate a kid with mud up under her fingernails. Mrs. Allendale will come by in Ann Taylor — pale blue or sea green silk now that it’s spring.
“Don’t touch your face till I scrub you up some, Octavia,” Serena says. It’s getting close to five and she needs this job to pay utilities, keep some heat and some lights, and maybe even pay a doctor’s back bills for Oscar, though it rubs a little wrong to pay those, now that Oscar’s gone.
Octavia’s planting one last bean plant. Her rows in the garden are neat, almost marching like soldiers, not what you’d expect from a four-year-old who could get so completely wildly scummy in the three hours she’s been up since her afternoon nap.
Roy Orbison’s blasting from the oldies station when the emergency message breaks in, warning of the traffic tie-up due to the accident further up Route 202, a truck overturned. She will be the last Mommy at day care again. Mrs. Allendale hits the steering wheel with the heel of her hand.
Damn. She can see the driver of the car in the next lane leering at her as she wraps her mouth around the curse and she wants to flip him off but she breaks a nail. Another 20-dollar manicure sacrificed to her temper as she tries to raise her middle finger too rapidly and snags the edge of the steering wheel.
Breathe. She hears the voice of her yoga teacher in the buzz between her ears. Breathe. She’s breaking into a sweat. She’s going to be the last Mommy at day care again, and she’s tired of the looks she imagines she gets as she walks up Serena’s walk to pick up Octavia, who will be happy as a clam, playing with blocks or Serena’s older boys.
I say she imagines she gets the looks because really Serena could care less if she’s a little late to get Octavia. Octavia’s such an easy child to keep. Really, it seems almost criminal to take Mrs. Allendale’s money, Serena would be thinking, only what with the bills, the boys eating them out of house and home, the third clutch in the Ford on its last legs, Serena figures she could use the money way more than the Allendales could. Mrs. Allendale jumps out of that Lexus like it’s on fire every afternoon, hustles poor Octavia to her car seat.
“Sorry, sorry I’m late. Sorry,” she says, her voice always seeming to be hinged on rubber bands. “Sorry.”
Octavia, who has been a loose little goose all day, always tightens when she walks to the car. Poor little baby, Mrs. Allendale thinks Serena must be thinking.
“Let me check your fingers,” Serena says to Octavia, glad Mrs. Allendale is running her usual quarter hour over. “Let me see if we got the dirt.”
Octavia holds out her pink pudgy four-year-old hands, palms up, and splays the fingers like duck feet without the webbing. She’s still as she lets Serena rub the lifelines practically off the palms with a hanky that she’s spat on over and over.
“Looks like we got most of it.”
Octavia’s been planting bean plants in Serena’s small garden. She’s been pulling up handfuls of wet earth and plopping in the seedlings, watching and then mimicking as Serena shows her how to put the dirt back around the stalk gently enough not to break anything, firmly enough so that the plant doesn’t fall over when it’s watered.
“Beanstalk, beanstalk,” the four-year-old has been singing with delight. When she finds a worm, she picks it up without hesitation, giggles from the bottom of her pigeon belly as it wriggles and tickles her hand before she squeals and drops it back into the garden. “Worm,” she announces.
“Bet your mommy would love to know you were holding that,” Serena’s been telling her, half hoping to discourage Octavia from telling Mrs. Allendale about the worm, and half dying to see that Ann Taylor mannequin’s face when the child breaks that news to her that she’s been skin to skin with slithering things.
I’m thinking Serena doesn’t like Mrs. Allendale much, thinks her life is way too easy, too orderly, too clean. Stuck there in traffic and losing any edge of composure she’s known at any point of the day, Octavia’s mother doesn’t mean to be such a cold or unlikable character. Really she has problems of her own and a whole set of feelings Serena hasn’t got a clue how to read.
I’m seeing Octavia in the dirt in front of the brick row and I’m thinking of Oscar. Octavia’s shorts are from L. L. Bean; Oscar’s were from the thrift shop. Most shorts at thrift shops are pretty sturdy. People with money never seem to notice that clothes can outlast the kid’s ability to fit them. In some cases — Oscar’s for one — the clothes outlast the kid himself.
I’m thinking of Octavia in the dirt, smelling the roses while Mrs. Allendale’s caught in traffic, cursing every red light. Octavia’s literally smelling the roses that have begun to go to seed. I’m seeing the way the sunlight glances off her hair, which is fine, but thick, the way her eyelashes still hold little white flecks of sleep even though it’s nearly six and her nap was hours ago.
Serena loves Octavia and loves watching her, even though she also watches Rosie O’Donnell every morning, (but on the q.t. ever since she learned Rosie’s a lesbian).
“You don’t watch that dyke do you?” Joe asked once after People ran the spread, but she said “No” a little too quickly. So now Joe’s suspicious. No, she should have said. No way. No fucking way, just for emphasis.
She doesn’t mean to be closed-minded, but girls with girls makes Serena wonder a little. Mrs. Allendale doesn’t love that about the daycare situation — the way Serena seems so limited in her thinking. And too much T.V.: Rosie at 10 a.m. and Oprah at 4. Mrs. Allendale thinks Serena’s a bit of a redneck, but good help is hard to find and Octavia doesn’t cry when Mrs. Allendale leaves her off in the mornings.
Today, instead of just swooping her child up and away, Mrs. Allendale comes into the house, sits on the edge of Serena’s sofa, gingerly. She’s weeping, and Serena’s bringing her a cup of tea.
“Call me Alison” — no that’s not her name — “call me Dora,” Mrs. Allendale’s saying. Mrs. Allendale takes a tissue from Serena, and she takes the tea in a chipped blue mug.
Octavia does not know what to make of her mother’s tears, of the way she says Call me Dora to Serena who has never called her mother anything but Mrs. Allendale and who has never been corrected before.
I never knew why my mother cried either. Her mouth would form a tight, straight line and then I knew it was time to stop asking and just be good.
Dora Elise Allendale doesn’t mean to be a tight ass, but she is. She wants to be competent all the time but, of course, she can’t be. I can see Serena bringing Mrs. Allendale a cup of tea while Mrs. Allendale sniffles and wipes her nose on the proffered tissue.
“It can’t be that bad, Mrs. A,” Serena’s saying. I want to tell you Mrs. Allendale’s dented the Lexus and that’s she’s afraid of what Mr. Allendale will do or say, but my hunch is even Mrs. Allendale is not that shallow. Anyway, Mr. Allendale’s her second husband. He works out five nights a week, and he thinks he’s involved, but mostly he’s involved with himself. He’s not a bad person; he’s just not that relevant to her story.
“Call me Dora,” she tells Serena between sobs. Serena’s never thought of Mrs. Allendale as a Dora. Barbara or Cynthia. Abigail maybe, but not a Dora. Serena had an Aunt Dora once, a short woman with a large, somewhat sagging pair of breasts under the ubiquitous floral shirtwaist dress. Sensible shoes. Mrs. Allendale is stick thin, has a bobbed nose, a slight scar under her ear where someone took a tuck of the very first wrinkle a few months ago. Serena’s surprised to hear her say Call me Dora, and more than a little discomfited. It seems too familiar.
But then, there’s Octavia, sitting next to George, Serena’s oldest. He’s come home from school, home from his pizza delivery route, and they’re watching television together. The little girl sure is comfortable poking him in the ribs every time Dr. Phil yells at that stupid couple who tell Oprah, Yes, it makes sense that the husband pays his wife for blow jobs since she wants more allowance and he wants more sex. Here’s Mrs. Allendale: she’s not even noticing how Octavia stopped watching PBS as soon as Georgie walked in and flipped the channel. Here is Serena thinking how stupid can a woman be to take twenty bucks for a blow job, so she has an allowance. Allowance? Who ever heard of such a thing among adults? And Mrs. Allendale’s bawling now, sitting at the edge of Serena’s scratchy Sears sofa when surely she has leather — buttery soft leather — at home.
Stranger days than these have been few in Serena’s life. “Dora,” she tries out, handing Mrs. Allendale a coaster. “Dora?” Nah, still weird, but Mrs. A. does look up, fixes Serena with a simpering stare as if she expects the babysitter to be a sage.
“PAYS his wife for sex!” Oprah’s exclaiming, whipping up the audience more like Jerry Springer than herself today, Serena’s thinking. Surely Dora, hearing this, will turn back into herself and be shocked by that. Octavia and Georgie are laughing at the leering hoots over blow jobs for 20 bucks a piece, but Mrs. A. just gives Serena wan little smiles.
“Thanks,” Dora says. “No one calls me Dora any more. My husband thinks Elise sounds more appropriate for a treasurer’s wife, but that’s my middle name. No one calls me Dora since my mother died.”
I know the tears are not for the death of the mother, not even for death. I think Mrs. Allendale’s coming apart at the seams but I’m not sure which seams or why now. Octavia looks up and is surprised to see her mother is crying. The tears seem connected to nothing. She huddles closer to Georgie. I know just how she feels.
It’s Wednesday and the clover smells so sweet in the park. It’s Wednesday, it’s been a week, and I don’t know why Mrs. Allendale is crying or how she will exit Serena’s and get it together to take Octavia home for supper. I lay down a sentence and a sentence while a wren trills in the maple, or maybe it is not a wren. Maybe it is not a maple. I don’t know why Mrs. Allendale is crying. It’s something with her family; maybe her brother called. Octavia knows what I know: in some families, when an uncle calls, it means your mother drops things and pulls her lips into a tight line and she’s not herself. I watch Octavia sitting on the couch next to Georgie. They are watching Oprah together. I don’t want her to get worried, concerned or confused. Maybe Mrs. Allendale doesn’t have a brother. Maybe she just has a car payment due.
I listen to sirens wail down nearby streets and watch the way grass waves like water waves, notice undulating shadows of dusk and feel the way the humidity has dropped. I’m thinking about how much I don’t want Octavia to worry, how much I love my life since I learned about letting go of worrying. But I’m a lot older than Octavia.
Whenever it rains at night, and there is lightning, Serena thinks of Oscar, how because he was a surprise, even Joe, who never tolerated this from the older two, would sometimes allow Oscar, jangled-boned, white as sheet, into their bed. At night, when it rains and there is lightning, Serena thinks about how, sometimes, after Oscar is sick but before they know that, he sleeps so heavy between their warm bodies he sweats like a slicked piglet. Still, he snoozes straight through the night. Their sheets seem damp with the outline of him weeks after he’s died, before Serena agrees to change the bed. Even then, that warm scent of boy in the curtains and carpet stays, all she has left of him after the bed is remade.
Some of Octavia’s nights are friendly.
“You hear the sirens?” Nana asks one friendly night. That night, the sheets cling. It is too hot to eat real food and so they have been grazing all day.
Octavia’s skin is magenta. The mosquitoes are fat with her blood. Her blood is warmed to boiling. The air is close. Close. It smells of sea lettuce and dead crabs. Sirens sound.
“Some damned fool’s gone and got himself drowned again,” her Nana announces. Octavia is four going on five, and literal. She wonders how a fool can drown more than once, but she doesn’t ask.
“Some damned fool every summer,” Nana’s saying. She wipes Octavia’s face with a washcloth and her touch is cool. “You want to come down for some ice cream with your Pop-pop and me?”
It’s way past Octavia’s bedtime but it’s too hot to sleep, and even though Nana and Pop-pop live at the seashore, there’s no shore breeze. The mosquitoes seem to be suspended in thick air above the square white night table with the shell jar lamp on it. The lamp’s off, but Nana’s face is illuminated by the light from the hall. Her cheeks seem to be lined in gold, like her sweat beads hold little bits of stars. Octavia loves her Nana though sometimes she scares her.
“Ice cream?” she squeaks out, sure that she misheard. It’s way past her bedtime and she’s already brushed her teeth.
“Too hot to be in this oven of a room,” Nana’s saying. She’s pulled back the sheet, put a fan on the dresser and plugged it in. Still everyone and everything sweats.
At the Formica table in the eat-in kitchen, Pop-pop is working a crossword puzzle in his undershirt. The sweat has gathered in brownish circles under his armpits.
“She hear the sirens, Sally? That what woke her up?” He asks Nana about her as if Octavia’s not standing right there, as if her pink, red, and sunshine yellow roses on her new sleeveless nightie are invisible to his tired blue eyes. Octavia doesn’t really mind that.
“I was hot, Pop-pop,” she says and then he looks right at her.
“Well, Hell’s Bells, Octavia. It’s August and this sure isn’t Alaska,” he says, but not unfriendly-like.
“Gordon.” Nana’s tone is a warning. “You’ll upset the child.” But Octavia’s not upset. She’s looking at these people who her mommy told her were her “real daddy’s parents” and she’s trying to imagine why he ever would have chosen to leave them.
“Octavia? You want vanilla or strawberry?” Nana asks. “We don’t have chocolate.”
“You giving her ice cream this time of night?” Pop-pop’s asking but more like he wants some too than like he’s angry. Why would her daddy walk away from people who have ice cream — two flavors to choose from — whenever they pleased, just because it is hot and there are mosquitoes, and because sirens are wailing and seem too loud for the tiny community’s ears?
“You hear those sirens?” It’s Pop-pop asking now. “Some damned fool’s gone and got himself drowned again.” He sounds just like Nana and Nana smiles at her as she dishes out some vanilla AND some strawberry, so Octavia doesn’t even have to choose.
That hasn’t happened yet. The friendly night, the shore vacation, that will be next summer when Octavia is closer to five. Now it’s still planting season in Philadelphia, an unusually warm April or May. It’s hard to write a story this way. I keep asking Dora Allendale why she’s crying but she won’t answer. Serena’s the one who lost a child; Oscar’s died. Dora’s mother and father are both gone, her brother and she don’t speak, her husband makes a lot of money. So what if he doesn’t believe in wrinkling the sheets too much when they have sex, straight up, every weekend, like clockwork?
Maybe Dora Allendale is tired of being Elise, tired of the two weeks every summer when she misses out on Octavia discovering how mosquitoes squished against a white wall leave red dots. Her Nana will call these measles but Octavia is born after measles are pretty nearly gone from the public awareness radar. Still she likes the word. Measles, measles, measles, she will sing for three days after Nana teaches her this word. Maybe Dora misses the singing. Maybe she would like to be in the small, overheated house with her first in-laws. Maybe she would like to eat ice cream instead of having to worry about a few extra calories and fitting into her Talbot’s capris by the end of the summer.
I know Mrs. Allendale’s first marriage ended poorly. Serena knows this too. That was a few years ago. He went out for a six-pack and never came back. Well, that’s what Octavia’s second daddy, Jon Allendale the Third, says when he thinks people will find him funny for saying it. Really he’s being mean. Serena thinks Mr. Allendale is a pretty hostile, controlling guy. She’s only met him once, but that’s what Dr. Phil on Oprah called another husband who showed similar behavior. Serena knows the world would call Jon the Third “steady” and a good catch. She’s heard that the first husband, Jerry, was a drinker and he only came home once after he left Mrs. Allendale and Octavia (a newborn then). He came home to tell Mrs. Allendale he wouldn’t be back; his new girlfriend was going to have a baby and he thought it was a boy. Serena figures Dora Allendale has decided that steady beats the hell out of an unsteady drunk, even if the steady guy is edged in mean.
The drunk, though, left some good behind. There’s Octavia and there’s Jerry’s folks. Serena bets Jon the Third isn’t pleased about this, but Sally and Gordon have kept track of Octavia. They see her for a couple of weeks every summer while Jon the Third and Elise — well, that’s how he sees her — take a vacation some place grown-up, some place where Jon the Third can improve his golf game. Somewhere Elise, Dora, Mrs. Allendale can get a tan and pretend she doesn’t miss her daughter terribly.
I keep asking Dora Allendale why she’s crying. I tell her I’ll call her Dora. I tell her I’ll get her a job with better hours so she can spend more time with Octavia, but I’m thinking she’s not really such a maternal type. She likes her job at the public relations firm. I’d promise to get her out of this cold marriage and let her live happily ever after with Jerry’s parents but that won’t do either. That’s what Octavia wants. That’s what I want for Octavia. Mrs. Allendale is getting ready to dry her tears and take Octavia home for dinner. She will feed the child in the kitchen before Jon the third comes home. She won’t get around to telling Serena what’s bothering her, what’s got her crying so hard.
When it rains in daytime, water splatters up and polka dots the red and coral petals of Serena’s geraniums with mud. Everyday rain makes Serena think of Oscar, how it is he loves water, any kind. How, when he is still well enough, he will play for hours in a fountain, a puddle, how when he splashes in the fountain near the children’s hospital, his laugh rolls up from the belly out. Little Buddha, she calls Oscar at two and three, before he gets sweaty all night, before rain scares him into the small pleat of mattress he makes when he wedges his hot body between Serena and Joe and whimpers: Mommy, Mommy. Hold me. But it is Daddy who does the holding. Joe who would never let the older kids over their threshold.
She can barely recall the feel of that Oscar, the one who is all elbows and eyelashes and huge wondering eyes. What eyelashes. Serena is sure she will never see another set so long and so perfectly, naturally curled until Mrs. Allendale’s at her door for their first interview and she gets her first look at Octavia. Everyone in the family knows what Serena falls in love with about Octavia as soon as they see those big, fringy eyes. Anyone who knew Oscar sees that for sure.
At first it does startle Serena a little to see in Octavia her Oscar’s eyes. But she’s mostly philosophical about her loss, though no one can understand how, let alone why. She thinks of her life like a channeled whelk or a chambered nautilus, one of those purple-mauve moon shells that just curls inside itself until it’s got so many corridors and little surprising rooms, it could be a funhouse. Some days her insides feel like that.
And Mrs. Allendale’s the one sitting on the edge of Serena’s Sears couch, the one Joe and Serena saved two years to buy, and Mrs. Allendale’s the one who’s crying. Why is she crying? Octavia is a little confused. Octavia is four, not even five yet, and this day at Serena’s is the first time she has seen her mother in tears, but Octavia isn’t worried. She knows how fast Serena’s there theres and pats and cherry popsicles makes even the worst dreams evaporate after a troubled nap. She’s woken screaming or crying. She doesn’t much know what Mommy’s up to, but Octavia sure trusts Serena. Serena never covers up or lies.
So Octavia, of course, knows all about Oscar.
Mrs. Allendale worries at first about Octavia being watched by a woman who’s lost a child. She’s read all the stories and seen the based-on-a-true-story, made-for-television movies about women who snap under grief’s weight and steal healthy children from the unsuspecting. At first Mrs. A imagines she’ll show up and Octavia will slip and call Serena “Mommy.” Then another day Octavia will refuse to get in the car. I belong to Serena, she’ll announce. But this never happens except for in Mrs. Allendale’s occasional nightmares. Really Serena gives each child she watches a quick hug when he or she leaves each day. She calls them all “Hon,” and seems to Dora Allendale to be warm but professional. And she never talks about Oscar in front of the other mothers. A month into Octavia’s stays at Serena’s, Mrs. Allendale is satisfied that the caregiver is over her loss.
The children in Serena’s charge, however, have heard about Oscar. Octavia’s seen photos and asked Georgie and Ben about the other boy with them in the pictures. They’ve told her about how Oscar loved water, how he was never afraid. Now she thinks about Oscar when she’s at the seashore and is almost never afraid of the curled white waves. Oscar would laugh at me if I’m scared, she thinks. Oscar would love the salt spray on his arms and legs.
Octavia is pretty sure she would have liked Oscar too. The day she tells Serena about that feeling, Serena gives her a big, juicy hug.
“Where’s Oscar now?” she asks Serena.
“Oscar’s in heaven,” Serena says, “but he visits in my heart sometimes.”
Octavia doesn’t know what heaven is, or how someone can visit your insides, but she believes Serena because Serena believes it herself. Days at Serena’s are like that: knowable, believable.
This one day has been a little different. This one is the one Mrs. Allendale asked Serena to call her Dora. She’s asked Serena for comforting. She’s never going to ask again. She’ll go back to being Mrs. Allendale tomorrow morning. Serena knows this as well as you do, as well as I do. So Serena’s pretty disgusted with Mrs. Allendale, and pretty frustrated too. She wanted to see what Dr. Phil and Oprah have to say to this woman getting paid for sex. And, truth to tell, she wanted to hear the details of exactly what this woman did for twenty bucks. She works hard with kids all day and she was hoping for a break before her husband got home. Now she’s got to get dinner on the table fast — spaghetti and meatballs again; she makes meatballs ahead and defrosts them for days like these.
“Georgie, come make a salad,” she calls to her teenage son. He’s a good kid; he comes in and tosses the salad while she puts the water on to boil.
On her way home at last, Octavia watches out the back window of the Lexus. She’s strapped into the booster seat and she wants to turn. The sun’s a flattened escalator up the silo on the farm off Route 422 and Octavia wants to slide down it.
“Slide,” she cries, all delight. Her mother’s thinking the traffic’s a bitch and what about Chinese for dinner since she hasn’t defrosted anything, and anyway, she’s got her book group tonight. She’s thinking her husband won’t want to be doing pots after she runs out with her copy of A Fine Balance, all 603 pages of it, (read through, skimmed; there’s just so much poor people taking shits on railroad tracks anyone can take).
“We’ll stop at the park tomorrow, Octavia,” her mother promises. She means to stop. She has no way of knowing the next day will be drowned in sheets of cold rain.
“Slide,” Octavia says but she’s meaning the sunlight, the way it appears to be solid now as they pass it and it glances off the side mirrors, turns Octavia’s honey brown hair to Rumplestiltskin’s gold and startles Octavia’s eyes.
The house finally quiet for the night, Serena will wash the teacup and think to herself how happy she is that Georgie and Octavia were engrossed in Oprah and didn’t seem to know Mrs. Allendale was distressed. She doesn’t know what I know, that Octavia has been listening with one ear. Octavia will grow up wondering what she could have done to make her mother’s life a happy one. She will spend her life wondering. These are things I know.