Nine years later, on a spring morning hot as summer, my poet boyfriend finally called. In the meantime, I’d married, etc. “Remember your father?” he asked with his usual cryptic simplicity. “I’m calling to ask your permission to put him in my novel.”
“You’re a poet,” I reminded him.
“How’s your writing going?” he sneered.
Well I had way too much to do for his banter, even about Dad, that perpetual joker, so I hung up and looked around my house where, even though we have huge windows designed to let in obscene amounts of light, the curtains were still drawn. This wasn’t my fault. Lenny and the kids were down with the stomach flu and the new one was so new I had had to stay up three nights in a row making sure she didn’t choke to death on her own vomit. I’m not making light of it; I know about death. So I forgot his call and rocked my baby instead.
But he called again. “I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch.”
“It’s only been six weeks,” I said. “With a family this size, that seems like a night and a day.”
“I know you’re angry, but I couldn’t deal with your bitterness,” he said.
This time, we’d had a good night’s sleep, good enough that Lenny had taken the kids to the park, leaving me with the baby; so I sat on the steps leading down to the laundry room to tell him a thing or two about grief. I decided to do it in list form since I am best with lists these days. “One,” I said, prepared to start with the death by poisoning of my cat when I was six, but then the dryer came to life — Wrinkle Guard the salesman called it, a special feature: nine spins every twelve minutes until your clothes have been returned to dust — and once it stopped its futile racket, I heard another sound, a ghostly cry getting louder, and asked him to hang on; on the porch, I found Valerie screaming in her daddy’s arms (her first bee sting, Lenny said, on the butt) and Benoit buzzing like a maniac, making Valerie shriek more, and then her whole thigh swelled up and we had to ice it and make dinner, and it wasn’t until we were in bed, the sheet pulled up to our necks, that I heard the Wrinkle Guard again.
“Well that explains why no one calls us anymore,” Lenny said in the morning when he found the phone off the hook.
Anyway, I felt bad, so I looked my poet’s number up on our caller ID. His voice on the answering machine was amazingly somber and he didn’t call me back. Not then, not after two or three more calls.
Summer fog came and went and then it was September again, the kids were starting school, and I was alone with my baby when the heat wave struck. On the ninth day of no relief, I dug through my closet for a sundress and found it a decade too young. I didn’t have time for this head trip. The baby was exploring her vocal range, her voice going higher and more piercing the longer I left her lying on the bed. I whipped off the insulting dress and threw it in a corner and tried on an old miniskirt, then cutoffs, until the baby hit high C and I had to settle for the same old tank top and underpants. But it disgusted me, the stiffened milk spills on my chest, the tired smell of my own crotch, the baby spitting up, left and right, all over the kitchen floor while I made dinner, and for some reason all this made me think of my poet again, and this time he answered.
“Motherhood has really softened your touch,” he said when I berated him for not returning my calls. He didn’t sound good, muted, but I figured a couple of rounds and we’d be back in form.
So I said, “You realize my father was pulling your leg. He was a funny guy. Death only made him funnier.”
“Ha, ha,” my poet said.
“Giving me the rights,” I said, “to his life, that death bed scene. First North American serial and all that. He was kidding you, kidding us.”
“Ha, ha,” he said again and then, to my surprise, he asked if I could call him back.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
That night, I tried to tell Lenny about the call but there just wasn’t time. The baby had run out of diapers and Valerie and Benoit needed baths before bed, so Lenny and I wound ourselves up and got going. But it was so damned hot and I’d been pushing hard all day and, once the kids were down, I fell apart the way I sometimes do. Lenny, bless him, stroked my hair and said, “I know, I know,” even though he didn’t, and that got me sobbing more; but the louder I got, the softer he got, until he was whispering in my ear.
“Follow me,” he whispered. Empty, I followed. He led me down the front stairs and across the yellow patch of weeds we call our front lawn to the edge of the green ring. This was where the kiddy pool had stood before it was stolen. I’d told the kids that flower fairies’ dancing feet had turned it green. They’d enjoyed that more than the pool for a minute, and I was going to boast about it — my imagination still good for something — but already Lenny was kneeling. He beckoned. I didn’t want to kneel on the prickly grass; I didn’t want to be in Lenny’s debt again. But to get it over with, I bent at the waist and saw the pale tips of a bulb.
Then the baby started crying, and I got to run inside.
The next morning, I was at the changing table when my poet called again.
“Tell him I’ll call him back,” I yelled to Lenny.
All morning my mind had been outside with that damned narcissus coming up at the wrong time of year. It was Saturday, fortunately, so Lenny was home to take up the slack. The fog had also mercifully come back. But with the windows open from the night before, once the usual breezes began blowing from the ocean inland, doors had started slamming and every time one had, I’d jumped. “Mother,” I’d said. And, “Fuck,” until Valerie and Benoit were saying, “Mother fuck,” and slamming doors themselves, and Lenny had had enough. He came into the nursery with the phone. “Shouldn’t you tell him yourself?”
The problem was my hands full of baby shit; also, the reason my poet was calling.
So I confessed. “He didn’t want to call, but he’s dying; he has nowhere else to go.”
“I knew it,” Lenny said, sticking out his neck in triumph.
My poet arrived the following Friday, the day our narcissus threatened to open its flower. It was a stunted thing, and it made me sad, but I’d been checking its progress daily. Now here came my poet up the stairs with the stalk in his hand.
Well, that was rude, so I told him Lenny had found it.
“Finders, keepers,” my poet said.
Still, he gave Lenny a second look.
“Lenny,” I said, “meet my poet. Poet, Lenny.”
They shook hands like ordinary men.
Not having seen him in so long, I was surprised how much he’d aged. It was hard to see what I’d ever found attractive. He was wearing the same old beret, sunned colorless at the crown, and his hair was so black it must have been dyed. Lenny is big and blond and bland and that’s what I’m used to now; but when they shook, I saw the blue vein winding past the bone in my poet’s wrist and remember, vaguely, his touch.
The kids were great. While I washed lettuce, my poet leaned against the counter with his sexy, narrow hips and tried to ignore them; but in their high-pitched, declarative way, they went straight to the heart of the matter and told him about their brother. “He lived with us inside the womb,” Valerie said, patting her tummy. “And now he lives up there,” Benoit said with a finger towards our ceiling.
Breaking from their script, Valerie sidled to my poet. “That’s why mommy’s sad,” she said.
“Not always,” Benoit countered in a sturdy voice, crowding her.
Valerie turned to fend him off.
“What was his name?” my poet asked, for which I blessed him.
But the kids were distracted by their daddy coming in from the grill.
Then it was dinner and there was no room for Maurice again what with cutting meat for the kids and getting the new baby fed and forks clattering to the floor and upturned glasses. But the wine tasted good and I kept drinking until Lenny offered to put the kids down without me.
“I have a confession to make,” my poet said as soon as we were alone. I’d lit the candles and now, in the yellow light with his beret off, he looked younger. I sipped and tried listen, but what I heard through the dining room wall was the dull thud-thud of kids jumping on beds. I was surprised; usually I was the lenient one. I nodded towards the sound, but my poet didn’t stop talking. He was back to my father, how dignified my father had been on his death bed, how profound it was, how humbled he had felt; but, as usual, words had complicated things: death had become, as soon as he tried to write it, all about himself. I knew this problem, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. All I wanted was to write Maurice:
every minute of his life.
But my poet really can be wily. Silence at last and he was tired.
“Your sheets,” I protested, “might still be wet.” Still, he insisted.
At the top of the basement stairs, I reached for the light switch, but my poet grabbed my hand. With his flair for the dramatic, he dug into his pocket and pulled out the narcissus. It sprang upright. We would use it, he said, as a candle. I shrugged and started down in the dark. I went on very, very quiet feet so as not to wake the children. Behind me, my poet was so quiet I would not have known he was there but for a hand he placed on my shoulder as we reached the bottom. It was eerie because this was how we had met, in some dark and lonely place, his hand a sudden weight. My own hand had been reaching for the next light, but now I stopped. I stopped and listened. In the silence, I heard that the dryer was done; I heard that the kids had gone to sleep; I heard Lenny in the bathroom banging out his toothbrush. This was different than the dark in which we’d met. For example, I knew that any second the Wrinkle Guard could start the dryer up. And even as I thought this, I heard Lenny’s footsteps creaking overhead. Within seconds, he would be flipping on the light. Ever since we’d met, he’d been flipping on lights and calling, “Sweetpea?” down to me. Thank god for Lenny. But with my poet right behind me, I remembered a different lust. My poet had arms so long that when he hugged me, they would wrap clear across my back and around my hips until his fingers rested on the curve of my belly. When Lenny hugged me, I felt Lenny. When my poet hugged me, I felt myself. Lenny had reached the top of the stairs. In my poet’s hand, the narcissus trembled and the stairwell filled with its sickly sweet smell. But the overhead light did not flick on. For one lifelong minute, we stood there in the dark, Lenny, my poet and I, and listened to each other breathing.