“Yeah, he just left.” Matty clutched the phone between his ear and shoulder while stirring the roux with a long-handled wooden spoon. Bits of onions, celery, leeks, and crushed tomatoes jiggled in the saffron-colored liquid. Dipping his curly head over the pot, he sipped, sipped again, and licked the rough spoon. Mmmm . . . curious how the same ingredients yielded a slightly different flavor each time he combined them.
Fifteen minutes earlier his father had walked out of Matty’s condo in an all too familiar exit. The conversation still clear in his mind, Matty reviewed the scene.
“I wish you’d consider working for me. I need a new manager for our main office. I’d like to keep the reins in the family.”
“I don’t think so, Dad. I like my teaching job, and they seem to like me.”
“Like you? Why shouldn’t they like you?”
“Why don’t you use Toby?”
“I need your brother in our southern branch. If you ask me, you’re wasting your time at that school.”
“I didn’t ask you.”
“You’re beginning to infuriate me, son. I’d better get going.”
* * *
“I hope you two didn’t have words.”
Words! His mother sure had a way of putting a spin on things.
“Nothing to worry about, Monica. Hold on a sec.” He plunked the phone on the counter, reached across the plate piled with raw shrimp, chopped lobster, and cod chunks for a cloth and continued to stir, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses, now fogged with steam, up into his bushy nutmeg hair. He’d been calling his mother by her first name since he turned 17, the exact day he got his driving license.
Except when his father came on the scene and said, “Matty, that’s your mother!”
“It’s all right, Jack.” Monica inevitably came to Matty’s defense. “He’s just being friendly.”
He grabbed up the phone and tucked it back under his chin. “I’m cooking bouillabaisse, too.” His mother also cooked a fish stew. It was a Friday night ritual when he and Toby grew up in the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey. “You’re right. I should have been a French chef . . . sure, next Saturday we’re free.” Monica planned a surprise dinner for Jack’s s60th birthday. “Yes. I always use clams.”
Matty stirred, watching the liquid churn in a rolling boil. He must learn to bake. Not much of a cake man, he believed bread would be a challenge. And muffins, well, muffins were downright exciting, to say nothing of the spices. Consider the possibilities — apple, raisin, pecan, banana, cranberry, walnut, blueberry . . .
* * *
He heard Allison’s key grinding in the lock, the door opening and closing, and some unintelligible words. He waited for her to come into the kitchen, and when she didn’t, he walked through the living room. He had a momentary sensation he would see someone else, a stranger with Allison’s key. But no. She wore a black, stylishly-fitted wool coat. A Fendi bag hung on her shoulder and Gucci patent pumps glistened in the foyer lamplight. He loved looking at her, but knew it might not be for long.
“Did you say you’re starved?” He called from the living room and walked back to his simmering pot.
They’d met two years earlier at a bar in Soho through mutual friends. Immediately attracted to each other, they dated for six months before Allison moved into his two-bedroom condo on West 86th.
They agreed the first one home would do the cooking. It happened always to be him, and he didn’t complain, preferring his own cooking, not only to hers, but also to most restaurants.
Allison walked into the kitchen with the daze of an earthquake survivor on her face. “I said I’m pregnant.” Her voice calm, she used the same tone she would use to say, “I picked up some espresso at Zabar’s.”
Clanking the wooden spoon on the edge of his pot, Matty splattered the front of his canvas apron and the refrigerator door. “Whoa. Is that any way to tell me?” Blood pulsed behind his eyes, a familiar anxiety gripped his chest. He waved the spoon at her like a suspicious grade school nun with a pointer. “Are you sure?”
“Dr. Leonard says eight weeks . . .” She folded her arms across her chest and backed against the wall.
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?” Matty wiped his eyelids with the wet sponge.
“I wasn’t sure. When he changed my pill . . .”
“Listen, we can get married right away.” He wanted to go to her and enfold her in his arms, but she seemed so defensive he turned to wipe the refrigerator door. “Monica and Jack will be delighted. A Spring wedding — we can load the church with flowers.”
Allison slipped off her coat, turned and walked back to the foyer closet. Removing a plastic hanger, she bunched her coat on the arms twice and twice it fell to the floor. Matty followed, stooped and picked up her coat and hung it in the closet. She turned to face him. Tears rolled down her blotchy cheeks. “You’ve put me in an impossible situation. I can’t have this baby and I don’t believe in abortion.”
Matty felt anger rise up and smash through his anxiety. “What are you saying?”
“We’re not going to get married, things haven’t been going well for us. I know you know it. We’ll have to consider adoption. You’re not thinking. I already work 15 hours a day.”
“You know I’m good with kids. I’m the most popular kindergarten teacher Emerson’s ever had.”
“You don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Monica will help.”
“You can’t just dump a baby on your mother.”
“I can take care of a child myself.
“For a month, until the novelty wears off.”
“You don’t know that. I take care of you and your needs very well, thank you.”
“Please don’t make me feel guiltier than–”
“Hold on.” He grabbed her shoulders with more force than he meant to use. “This is my baby too.”
“This is my life.” She struggled out of his hands.
“Come back in the kitchen.” He took her by the arm as he might help a disaster victim. The heavy fragrance from the pot of hyacinths in the middle of the table, which only a short time before he’d thought sexy, irritated his nose. Two lavender candles burned close to their glass holders. “This is ours together.”
“Don’t be so old-fashioned. You don’t understand. This morning Pete told me I’m being considered for a vice presidency. They want me to move to Dallas after the New Year.”
“You hate living near your dad. It’s a perfect time for us to move.”
“Why does one have to neg out the other? Let’s go up to Vermont for a few days and think on this.”
“I’d rather go alone if you could arrange it with your parents.”
“I want this baby.”
“You want your own baby way.”
* * *
Matty yawned himself awake and smelled the sweet essence of Beautiful, Allison’s favorite perfume. The doorbell! He glanced over at her side of the bed, still smooth and unwrinkled, her pillow puffed. The doorbell again! He inched to the edge of the bed and dropped his legs over the side. He knew it was Toby. Who else would be up and out at 8:30 on a Sunday morning?
“Don’t push it,” he yelled, shoving cold feet into ragged slippers. Allison often teased him about his long, skinny feet. He opened the door. “Geez, Toby. Why don’t you get something to do with your Saturday nights? Let the rest of us sleep in on Sunday mornings?”
“Hi, bro. I thought you might want to ride out to the beach.”
“It’s damn near freezin’.”
Pulling off his tasseled ski cap, Toby scratched his scalp enthusiastically. “The beach is wonderful now. Haunting. I like it better than in summer.”
“Forget the beach. I wish you’d start dating again. It’s been years.”
“Please. Not before my coffee.”
Matty walked into the kitchen and began to fill the coffee pot with water from a Brita pitcher. “How long you gonna kick yourself? Whataya want in this?”
“Two sugars, no milk. It’s not easy to forget my wife turned out not only to be a junkie, but a pusher.”
“Only labels. Labels. What is it with us, Toby? Are we some kind of wimps?”
“You mean men who can’t control our women?”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.” Matty tossed him a look that said that’s not what he meant at all. “I think Allison is about to split.”
“Did she go to Vermont? When Ma called me about Dad’s party she said you asked to use the chalet.”
“How do you suppose our father would handle Allison?”
“I can tell you what he would have done with Dierdre — tied her to the bed and made her quit cold turkey.”
“Allison’s pregnant and she won’t marry me. To tell the truth we haven’t been getting along too well . . . but the baby . . .”
“Does Mom know?”
“No, although Monica can handle things. I want this baby.”
“You do?” Toby got up and paced around the kitchen.
“She’s walking around sounding like a feminist tract . . . she’s been betrayed by her body . . . I’m trying to understand, but it is my baby too.”
“Are you sure? You know a man can never be–”
“Shut up, Toby. You’re not funny.”
“Well, we can always call Brute.” They both laughed nervous little boy laughs.
By the time he turned ten, Matty had written off his father as a source of pain, someone to shy away from. Toby, on the other hand, had hopped into the ring with his six-year-old dukes up, dubbed Jack “Brute,” and somehow cultivated a respect for their father that Matty didn’t even attempt to understand. While Matty felt frightening, uncontrolled wildness in their father, Toby sensed the raw energy that had created a giant land development in western New Jersey and went to work for him.
* * *
Matty thought of his eighth birthday. “Wow, Ma. I never saw such big hearts.” There were advantages to being born on St. Valentine’s Day. Yard-wide red paper hearts trimmed with crinkled lace hung from the ceiling molding of the dining room.
“Here, open your present before the confusion starts.” His mother thrust a gift-wrapped box at him and hurried back into the kitchen. Grabbing the box, he ripped off the paper and ribbon. Inside was a red sweatshirt with a white Snoopy imprinted on the front and MATTY on the back in large, white block letters.
“Neat.” He began to pull the shirt over his head when he heard his father come down the stairs.
“Monica,” what’s going on here? His father thundered into the dining room. “A heart-shaped cake, lace, doilies, flowers. This stuff is for girls.” He stomped around the room tearing down the streamers and huge red hearts.
Monica came in from the kitchen and shrieked. “Jack!” Brute froze. Red and white crepe paper tangled around his arms and neck. He looked like a clown in a circus act except his face wasn’t a happy or sad one. Going into the kitchen, he got the metal stepladder and rehung the decorations. Monica scotch-taped the torn hearts.
Matty stuffed the Snoopy shirt back into the box and folded over the tissue paper. Now and then when he was alone in his bedroom, he opened the cover and traced the S in Snoopy with his finger. Several months later, when he tugged the shirt over his head and turned his back to the mirror to admire the MATTY, it already pulled tight across his shoulders.
* * *
“He still makes me nervous.” Matty set his coffee cup on the table in front of Toby. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s a psychopath.”
“I know. He’s a hard guy.”
“He’s so damn inconsistent.” Matty ran a hand through his mop of hair.
“How about when you racked his new Mercedes?”
“He told Monica not to be upset, I was just learning to drive.”
“God. How he would rage if his comb was missing from his bathroom.”
“Remember he bolted it to the wall on a chain.”
“It’s a miracle we’re not both emotional wrecks.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“In lieu of Brute’s help, what are you going to do?”
“I want Allison to have this baby.”
“How do you propose to accomplish that?”
“Bribery, threats — whatever it takes. Get dressed, and let’s go up to the West Side Storey for some breakfast. I love their apple cinnamon muffins.”
“The ones with walnuts.”
“Yeah. I’ve got to learn to bake.”
Walking up Columbus Avenue, Matty felt helpless. Abandoned was a better word. He saw himself the tall, serious young man with nutmeg curls and wire-rimmed glasses in a black leather jacket clutching the hand of his small boy in a red Snoopy shirt. Crossing the broad street, the man let go, dropped the hand of the child, halfway across. Cars whishing by in both directions. The child disoriented, the man terrified.
“Watch out for the bus.” Toby shouted, yanking back Matty’s arm as he was about to step off the curb. “Come on, kid. Let’s get some of those apple cinnamon muffins with the walnuts.”
* * *
In the condo kitchen Wednesday night it was as if Allison had never been to Vermont. “You’re not going to give up on this, are you?”
“I can’t. What is it, Matty? I don’t understand. Marriage and a child were never part of our plans. We never discussed–”
“Allison, you could do it. Take your month’s vacation, have the baby, and still be in Dallas by the first of the year. You at least owe me that.”
“Owe! Bullshit. I don’t owe you anything. You want this baby for your own selfish reasons.” Allison stabbed the serving fork into a mound of pasta primavera that Matty had turned out onto a gold-rimmed platter. “You think you’re a better person than I am. I don’t have a rich father as a cushion. In five years I’ll be established. Then I can consider having a child.”
“You’re Catholic. You don’t believe in abortion. I can give this child a better life than any family an adoption agency might find.”
“What do you know about my religious beliefs? You’re trying to blackmail me. This has little to do with me . . . with us. Admit it.”
“No. Let me finish. You just want to create a fanciful father for some kid — any kid — yourself. Damn you, Matty!”
The next morning Allison said she was moving in with her friend Mary Hansen. She packed her soft lacey lingerie, many pairs of gloriously colored pantyhose, several silk blouses and skirts, all her lovely smelling cosmetics, and left.
Two days later, while Matty was at work, she came by and cleared out the rest of her stuff, even taking the espresso machine which was definitely his, having been a house gift from Monica and Jack when he bought the condo before he met Allison. She obviously felt he owed her something. Bribery, blackmail — Matty knew then he would have his baby.
Allison had said unwanted. Not true. He wanted that child more than . . . yes, face it, more than he wanted to be with Allison. This wasn’t a decision by default. He felt a little shaky, but he would work at being decisive. He would grab hold of the hand of his own child in the red Snoopy shirt. He would be ready to hold the hand of his new baby. He would breathe every breath with that baby and cry every cry. His child would never be afraid.
* * *
Three days before her due date, and a month before she would move to Dallas, Allison delivered their baby in Harkness Pavilion. A girl, seven pounds three ounces. They agreed to call her Margaret Mary.
Allison had refused to take Lamaze classes with him and instructed Dr. Leonard to bar him from the labor room. He didn’t blame her. For a time he worried that she might change her mind and take the child to Texas.
Two mornings after the baby was born he went to the hospital and a doctor at the nurses’ station told him Allison had checked out. He could take his daughter home the next afternoon.
Monica hired a competent baby nurse with a smile as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel, through which he planned to travel to the Watchung Mountains on weekends. Maybe it was time to work for Brute. He’d have to give that some serious thought.
On the way to the hospital the following day, he stopped at the Shirt Shoppe on the corner of his block and selected an infant-sized pink shirt.
“How would you like this imprinted?” a woman with a radiant balloon of blush on each cheek asked.
Matty stroked the soft cotton fabric and smiled. “Muffin. M-U-F-F-I-N in white block letters.”