Maddie’s mother was missing. And, here she was in her parents’ kitchen preparing a meal, while the men made phone calls in the next room. Her father had steered her toward the kitchen the moment she and Andrew arrived, saying that her mother would be famished if she came home now. In other words, he was hungry. Harold was adept at asking for favors without actually asking for them. Built like a quarterback, with massive shoulders and a large ponderous head, he kept up the illusion of self-sufficiency his size implied. That his request was sexist she’d decided to ignore, though she could tell Andrew was disappointed from the way he wriggled his eyebrows at her before he followed Harold into the living room.
In her parents’ galley-sized kitchen, she tossed diced pepper with baby spinach leaves; the vivid red against the green reminded her of the cardinal she’d seen in the pines on her morning run. While she had been making her way toward home, her mother had been running away from hers. Maddie would run from this place, too, from the chaos and disarray. In addition to the stacks of papers, cookbooks, and potted herbs on the countertop, there were also bits of nature: pinecones, mica, flat smooth stones, and a purplish snail shell she had absent-mindedly tried to dice when she found it near the cutting board.
Lilliane’s prize-winning still lifes were composed of these lowly bits and pieces of ordinary life, and she surrounded herself with them as though she thought she could enter her own paintings. The oddest part about her disappearance was the fact that she’d taken none of her things with her. According to Harold, she’d left for the doctor’s with only a pocketbook.
Maddie lowered the flame and slipped into the sitting room, a small space packed with artifacts from her mother’s travels, both abroad and downtown. A foyer separated this room from the living room where Andrew and Harold were talking. She stood inside the doorway, straining to hear above the car horns and sirens on Second Avenue.
“Want me to do it?” Andrew was saying.
“I can do it,” Harold said, irritably. “I just don’t think it’s necessary.”
“But they don’t bring people to the hospital if they’re already –”
“I know,” Harold repeated, more firmly.
“That’s why we should be calling the morgue,” Andrew said.
She braced herself for her father’s reply. But, instead a silence more horrible than words followed.
“It’s always better to eliminate the worst possibilities first,” Andrew said finally.
Oh, Andrew, she thought, always so practical. Her family — with their circular way of saying things, their benign neglect of the truth, their virtuoso avoidance — was inscrutable to him.
“Go ahead, if you want,” Harold said, to her amazement. “I’ll check on dinner.”
She ran back to the kitchen not wanting to be caught lurking. She arrived at the stove just in time to fold the omelet. In a moment, she felt his presence like increased gravity on one side as she worked the eggs loose from the pan and folded them over. She shut off the flame and turned. He appeared so lost and bereft; it was painful to look at him.
“Why don’t you set the table?” she said without thinking.
As she watched him open and close cabinets, she remembered his aversion to everything domestic. Whenever his grown daughters challenged his anachronistic attitudes, he’d say, I’m from the old school, making Maddie think of a Father Knows Best University where the women majored in home economics and wore frilly aprons, while the men studied accounting dressed in gray flannel suits.
“The dishes are in here,” she said, yanking open the right cabinet. She allowed herself to fume, preferring irritation to the more unfamiliar pity. Cruelly, she wondered how he would spin his wife’s disappearance in one of his celebrated essays. In his idealized family portraits all resentment, disappointment, and dark silences were airbrushed out of existence and replaced by bonhomie, clever repartee, and funny confusion. His version of the Good family — close-knit and kooky — led by his good-humored, long-suffering doppelganger was close enough to the real thing, to make her long for what could have been.
“I wasn’t looking for the dishes,” he said, but reached for them anyway.
Andrew came into the kitchen then. Maddie and Harold turned at the same time and bumped into each other in the tight space.
“They have one female,” said Andrew. His hand trembled as he put his glass on the table. “A Jane Doe, a teenager.” Despite the good news, his handsome sharp-boned face looked stricken.
“I told you it was ridiculous to call,” Harold said. He placed the stack of dishes on the table. “Your mother keeps the, uh, salad servers in the, um, other room.”
She raised her eyebrows at Andrew as her father left the room.
“Someone had to do it,” he whispered. “He’s wasted hours calling your mother’s old school friends.”
“He’s calling places like Woodstock, Vermont, like there’s a chance in hell your mother went there without a suitcase. I did him a favor. He’s been putting off this call all day.”
“Okay, I get it,” she said. Even though she was her family’s most vocal critic, it upset her when Andrew took up the cause. “You did a good thing.”
“Would a thank you be too much to ask?”
“Keep your voice down,” she said, glancing at the doorway. “Maybe he’s not feeling so grateful right now.”
“I’m talking about you.”
“Me?” She hadn’t expected that. “Okay, fine. Thank you. Satisfied?” She pointed at his glass. “Make that your last one. You won’t have me to drive you home, remember?”
He picked up the glass. “Harold wanted a scotch, so I’m keeping him company.”
“How kind of you,” she said. His drinking had lately increased in direct proportion to their mounting financial stresses. On top of Robin’s college tuition, there was the ongoing renovation of their 200-year-old house. He was an architect and, what Maddie called, an old-house snob. Over the course of the last ten years, he’d spent an enormous amount of money and time repointing the chimneys, framing new walls, restoring millwork, and refinishing floors. A few months ago, a local contractor had knocked on their door with a tempting offer; he’d been eyeing the house as a tear-down. She’d decided not to tell Andrew; it would have broken his heart.
“Go help Harold,” she said. “He has no clue where she keeps anything.”
“All right. But give me a break, okay? I’m just trying to help.”
When he left, she finished setting the table, banging dishes, slamming down glasses, surprised by her anger. Her parents were children, she thought, spoiled, willful, and selfish. How clever of them to go give birth to their own caretakers.
Andrew returned, grimacing. “I think he might be crying.”
“What the hell was she thinking, just taking off like that?” she said.
“If she did take off, where did she go? He’s called everyone in her phonebook.”
“She went wherever women go when they decide to walk out on their families.”
“That’s pretty harsh,” he said. “She does have cancer. Maybe she panicked about having to go through the treatments again.”
“Well, we don’t know if she has cancer, Andrew, because she never did show up for the biopsy, remember?”
“Why are you yelling at me? What did I do?”
“I’m not yelling at you. Does everything have to be about you?” She yanked open a drawer and grabbed three forks, three knives. “I’m irritated at them. Why can’t they keep their shit together? This is so typical.” As she talked, she traveled around the table doling out the silverware. “They probably had one of their stupid fights, and rather than talk it over like two adults, she stormed out like a melodramatic adolescent.”
His grimace deepened his dimples, the sight of which never failed to trigger her desire for him. But her desire was soon doused when he said, “You don’t give anybody a break, do you?”
Her face filled with heat. She never meant to become such a bitter and rigid person. The role was thrust on her like a scratchy overcoat that she couldn’t take off. And now she feared the world would be too cold without it.
“It’s getting late,” he said. “Go get your father. I can’t go in there again.”
The meal passed in silence. The wind groaned in the airshaft, seeking escape. She pushed her eggs from one side of the plate to the other. It seemed cold-hearted to be eating in a warm apartment while her mother was out there. Somewhere. Although the meal was ostensibly prepared for Lilliane’s return, Harold helped himself to the last few spinach leaves without hesitation or apology. His appetite lived independently of other people and circumstances it seemed.
Andrew pushed his half-full plate away, his face pale and slack. Perhaps, like her, he was thinking of the young girl in the morgue.
“Have you called Robin?” he said.
“No, why?” His question startled her.
“To let her know her grandmother’s missing.”
“But, there’s nothing she can do up in Boston.”
“She should know what’s going on in her own family,” he said, his eyes widening.
“Of course,” she said, chastened. “I’ll call later.”
“Maybe Lilliane decided to visit Robin,” Harold said, brightening. “She was wondering why we didn’t hear from her after we mailed a birthday check.”
Maddie glanced at him. Was he implying that she hadn’t raised her daughter properly? But Harold was lost in thought. “Lilliane has that friend from Boston,” he said as though to himself. “A painter. Mary something. A dog’s name.”
“Fido?” Andrew said.
She shot him a warning look before getting up to clear the table. Now she was starting to worry about Robin. “When did you send the check, Dad?”
“Huh?” Harold was tapping his knife, distractedly, on the table. “What check? Oh, that. I don’t know; your mother takes care of all that.”
All that. His grandchildren’s birthdays. She slid the knife from his hand and added it to the dishwasher.
“Collie!” Harold slammed his hand down on the table. “That’s it. Mary Collie. I’m going to call the Massachusetts directory.” He pushed his chair back from the table, then left the kitchen.
She slammed the dishwasher closed. “He can remember an obscure painter from ten years ago,” she said, “but he can’t remember Robin’s birthday?”
“Robin can’t remember to thank him, so they’re even.” He leaned back in his chair, looking satisfied with himself. “As long as you’re keeping score.”
Maddie’s back stiffened. Scorekeeping was something she’d learned from her mother. Her earliest memories of Lilliane included negotiations and bargains: “If you can play quietly for two hours while Mommy works, then I’ll take you to the playground.” Maddie and her brother, Daniel would watch from the window as their mother disappeared into the detached garage, the musty off-limits studio that smelled like motor oil, turpentine, and acrylics. Two hours would stretch into three, and when she and Daniel, hungry and bored, would timidly open the studio door, Lilliane would look up from her canvas with a dreamy faraway expression. “Is it time already?” she’d say.
Years later, when people asked Lilliane how she’d managed to paint with four kids she’d say it was accomplished on stolen time. It didn’t occur to Maddie until she’d had her own child that she’d been robbed.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” she told Andrew. “Why was she alone? If I had to get a biopsy wouldn’t you come with me?”
“Of course,” he said. “Why don’t we ask him about that? Maybe that’s what the fight was about.”
“Forget it,” she said. “He’ll just tell us to mind our own business.”
He put his head in his hands. “Your family drives me nuts.”
“Don’t you dare lump me in with them.” When he didn’t respond, she threw the sponge at his head. “Take it back.”
He looked up. “It is your business,” he said, tossing the sponge back to her. “He asked for your help.”
“He asked me to help, not pry,” she said.
“Jesus, Maddie,” he said. “You’re a family of writers who won’t communicate.”
He was right. Most of the meaningful conversations she had with her family took place in her head. Only with Andrew was it was safe to think aloud, to argue, and debate without the fear of trampling a fragile ego or trespassing on private property. In fact, she was reluctant to let him go now, fearing that his departure would signal an end to direct communication. But he had a 9:00 a.m. meeting with a 30-year-old junior law partner who was building a junior palace.
As she walked him to the hallway he grumbled about his new client’s tasteless additions to his classical design. Though it made her sad to see his architectural firm accepting fewer restoration projects — his true passion — in favor of the more lucrative new design work, she thought he was lucky to have that option. “It’s a waste of my talents,” he’d say. She wanted to answer, “Do you think it’s my life’s ambition to write technical brochures?” But, the sad truth was that she’d settled for the uninspiring work after Robin had been born.
Perhaps now that they were middle-aged, they could give adolescence a shot, she thought as they embraced outside the elevator. She could write poems, and go around without a bra or a cell phone. He could restore long-neglected historic landmarks. She took his hands and slid them inside her shirt. It had been years since they had spent a night apart. When the elevator doors slid open they jumped away from each other, laughing nervously, though no one was there to see them.
She returned to the apartment, to the kitchen where she started to clean out the refrigerator, tossing out stale bread, sour milk, green fuzzed Havarti. She knotted the top of the bag and shoved it into the chute. Long after it had disappeared, she stared into the darkness. Why had it taken so long for her mother to leave?
“The garbage will find its own way,” Harold said, startling her.
She turned to see him in the doorway, looking rumpled and defeated. He went to the sink and filled a glass with water.
“Did you reach Mom’s friend?” she said.
“She’s dead. Breast cancer, if you can believe it.”
She waited for him to say more, but he turned and left. She switched off the lights and went to the guest room. The double bed was made up with a multitude of needlepoint pillows, some with sayings stitched into them. One caught her eye: The Self Reveals Itself to Itself. Was she just too exhausted to understand, or was that the most impenetrable statement she’d ever read?
Over the bed hung a framed pen-and-and ink drawing from one of her father’s earliest essays. The simple line drawing captured the essence of his children. While her siblings appeared in various states of disarray — shirts untucked, bonnets lopsided, anklets drooping — she was portrayed as neat as a soldier, an army of one. Deprived of a traditional mother, she had learned to mother herself, and when they needed it, she mothered her siblings, too.
There was a high crackling sound at the window as hail stones hit the panes. She pulled down the shades. It was 11:00; her mother was not coming home tonight. As a child, Maddie would habitually get lost in Shop-Rite, and the manager, a bushy-haired man named Ralph would make his usual joke over the public address system, “Mrs. Good, I’ve got Maddie here, and she says you’re lost again.”
She changed into her nightgown then sat on the edge of the bed to telephone her sister in Miami.
“Maddie?” Marina said, groggily. “I was in a deep sleep. Did you find her?”
She marveled at her younger sister’s ability to slip into unconsciousness during stressful times. Marina had once confided that she never slept better than when her life was a mess, which it was most of the time with four children and a husband who frequently traveled.
“No,” Maddie said. “But at least we know she’s not in any hospitals or morgues.”
“Morgue? God, I was thinking more along the lines of a boyfriend.”
“Do you know something?”
“Nothing. She tells me nothing.” Marina yawned. “If she does have a lover, I’m happy for her. Forty-nine years is a long time to live with that ego maniac. Call me again tomorrow, okay? I’m too sleepy to talk.”
She hung up and burrowed under the blankets. The pillow was scented with her mother’s perfume. A lover. She considered the available men in her own life, but could only see the hirsute Lebanese drycleaner whose fussy greetings made her feel a bit self-conscious because she took such pleasure in them. She drifted off to sleep and woke a short while later to a buzzing sound. She looked around the dark room wondering where she was. After a few seconds she remembered and reached for her vibrating cell phone on the night table.
“Tell your father I’ve left him, in case he hasn’t figured that out yet,” said Lilliane. She sounded far away as though she were calling from a dream.
“You tell him,” Maddie said. When there was no reply, she pulled the phone away from her ear. The call had been terminated. She waited until the sound of rain thrumming the windows was louder than her pounding heart, and then she got out of bed and went to the kitchen.
Harold was slumped over on the table, asleep. She shook his shoulder, called his name. His slack, baffled expression when he raised his head alarmed her. She had never seen him so unguarded. He rubbed his face as though to restore his features to their former confident arrangement then looked at her expectantly as though she had the answer to some question. She noticed then that his wedding album was opened on the table, the protective plastic creased and wet where his cheek had lain. Lilliane looked up from the page, her smile stupidly, stubbornly hopeful.
“Come on, Dad,” she said, taking his arm. “It’s time for bed.”