Teeny became a mother every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when she left the bank at 2:00. Rather than locking the side door behind her, as she did at closing every other day of the week, Teeny exited through the revolving front door. That revolving door still felt unfamiliar to her. As she pushed her way from the quiet lobby of the bank to the sidewalk of College Avenue, she heard the whoooosh of air exchanging from inside to out; for Teeny, tangible evidence of one identity being replaced with another. By the time she had entered the car, turned the key in the ignition, and looked in the rear view mirror, Teeny’s mother-face had slipped right into place. It made her breath catch in her throat to look and feel so motherly, even part-time.
The drive through downtown Burlington, Vermont, to her sister Laura’s house was short. Certainly short enough to walk. Laura had often done that, in the opposite direction, when the kids were little. She’d pack Brendan and Elizabeth into the double stroller and meet Teeny at the bank for lunch. They had fun those days. When Laura was alive, Teeny had been an aunt full-time.
She had liked being an aunt. She felt a fascination for Laura’s children, a yearning and a distance, too. She loved to hold them, and smooth fly-away hair from their eyes; she knew to rub their backs when they were cranky, and to say NO firmly when they tried something dangerous, like tipping over a restaurant chair, or toddling too close to the passing cars on Pearl Street. “You’re so good with the kids,” Laura said over pizza at Leonardo’s one day. Both the kids were in Teeny’s lap. Elizabeth pulled on her dress buttons and Brendan put his fingers in Teeny’s ears.
“I’m a novelty,” said Teeny, “because I’m not their mother.”
“You’ll be a mother some day,” Laura said. She stretched her arms and smiled, a happy woman with a few moments of freedom. Her prophecy had come to pass, though not in the way that Laura and Teeny had expected.
Laura’s house sat on a corner lot on School Street. The yard was small and round as a wafer. The house itself was as simple as a child’s drawing — a symmetrical Colonial. One summer Laura, newly pregnant but stubborn, had climbed a ladder against doctor’s orders and painted the shutters and the windowsills a grayish purple. She had meant for this to cheer up the gray exterior but Teeny noted how, even in today’s afternoon sunlight, the house looked shadowed.
Teeny had her own key and she let herself in the side door. The house was neat; quiet too. It was not that way when Laura was alive. Laura was messy and loud. She’d slammed the cabinet doors as she prepared the dinner, she had made three movements for Teeny’s one, and she’d turned up the kitchen radio even while Oprah blared from the family room. It had been that way growing up, too. Teeny and Laura had shared a room, but Laura’s side seemed larger, Laura’s voice louder, Laura’s body more powerful. But really, Laura was small, and Teeny, two years younger, was large. A whole head taller.
“You ruin everything, Theodora!” Laura complained, one day in their long ago childhood in Colchester, Vermont. “I should be picked first!” She said this out of spite after the neighborhood boys had once again neglected to pick Laura for either basketball team, even though Laura was older. After that Laura re-named Theodora “Teeny” as a joke, and the name had stuck.
Teeny didn’t mind. “Theodora” had always been difficult to live up to. “Teeny” seemed playful, and she wanted nothing more than to move in the direction of her name. As a child she had been far too serious. As she grew older the transformation had never really happened, but it was nice to be named in relation to something — in relation to Laura.
At 2:20 Teeny left the house for the short walk to the elementary school. The kids were old enough to walk home on their own, certainly, but they seemed to like it that Teeny stood waiting for them. Almost everybody picked up their kids these days, unlike her own schooldays, when Teeny and Laura had walked a mile home, through Colchester, together. Teeny smiled, remembering the way she and her sister had bent their heads toward one another on those walks, how they had crafted a mythical world, called Canada, which was not really like the Canada over the border (a place their parents said was “too far” and “too strange” and had never bothered to take them), but someplace more special, more rare; they had even created beautiful but fragile creatures — kind, but not quite human — to live there. They did this day after day, that is, till the one day when Laura said, “Canada is for babies,” and chose to walk just ahead of Teeny, in a cloud of silence that lasted through most of high school.
Now Teeny stood near the other mothers. Near, but not exactly with. A few fathers stood beside Teeny, as though Teeny were the swinging door between one world of parenting and another. The fathers smiled and nodded at her, she did the same, and Teeny wished the kids would hurry up, already. Seeing Laura’s kids never made Teeny feel lonely or sorrowful, but seeing other parents did.
Teeny tried to block their voices out. She kicked the dirty sand at her feet. It was late April. Road salt, sand, and paper wrappers swirled in the constant wind that wound through town, off Lake Champlain.
Laura had died at about this time three years before, Teeny remembered (she always remembered), on a gray March day that had seemed to define mourning. Teeny had picked the kids up from school that day, too. Early. Laura’s husband, Alexander, had said he couldn’t do it; he just couldn’t tell them, and would Teeny? He wanted to follow the undertaker, God, he couldn’t leave Laura alone just yet.
So Teeny told them the news in the office the nervous principal had vacated. Teeny sat in the principal’s swivel chair and hugged the kids for a long time. Elizabeth cried and cried and Brandon asked everyone to stop crying please. He said his throat felt weird, could he maybe have a lollipop? He knew the nurse hid them in her top drawer. That afternoon, staring out the principal’s window at the solemn gray sky, Teeny couldn’t imagine how the sun could keep on rising.
The sun did continue to rise (though it showed itself only rarely; it was after all, spring in Vermont). But each bright day seemed only to sear Teeny’s grief into her; the grief did not melt away, no, it hardened like leather boots marched through mud and then dried on a porch.
Teeny turned her thoughts now to the afternoon ahead: she would have to make dinner for the kids and then leave some behind for Alexander before heading to the Town Mall; Brendan needed sneakers again and Elizabeth wanted sandals, despite the chill of the current weather. Outside the school the mothers beside her talked about grocery store salsas and the dads kept that same conversation going and going: “I think the teachers just sit in there after the bell rings and they count to like, 2,000, and laugh at us. We’re hostages out here!”
“It’s all about power!”
“You said it! Oh, here come the kids!”
The school’s glass doors swung open with a supernatural force — the children — and then two, ten, a hundred kids came running down the brick steps with their arms and legs pumping.
How could death exist, Teeny wondered, with such energy in the world?
The parents on either side of her didn’t seem to notice the force that had just been unleashed among them. One mother barely budged as her second-grader body-slammed her — she just kept talking. The fathers didn’t even seem to make eye contact with the kids, they just grabbed a backpack, a hand, and started walking toward their cars.
Teeny remembered that long year when Laura was dying. One day Teeny had come to pick up Elizabeth, who was then in second grade. Brendan was home that afternoon with Laura — well, with Laura in a hospital bed in the dining room while Brendan crashed dinosaurs together at Laura’s feet and the day nurse moved in and out of the room. Teeny had been so sad and hopeless that day, knowing what she knew, but not knowing how she or they would ever get through it. When she’d seen little Elizabeth come running toward her on the school grounds, well, Teeny’s heart filled with so much love and despair that she dropped to her knees and opened her arms as if to say, come, Elizabeth, come, I’ll save you!
But just now, Brendan emerged from the crowd and knocked Teeny out of her memories. “Can I play at Lincoln’s house?” he cried with his piercing, overtired voice. “Can I? Can I? Can I? Can I?”
“Not today,” Teeny said distractedly. She still had one eye out for Elizabeth. Lincoln’s mother appeared instead.
“I can drop him off later — it would be no problem, really. Lincoln just loves Brendan to death.”
“Another day,” Teeny said. “We’ve got to buy some sneakers today.”
Brendan kicked her ankle, hard. “Sneakers! Sneakers are boring!”
Teeny hobbled aside and did her best to stare Brendan down. He was hard to like, lately. Her face might have betrayed this because Lincoln and his mom wandered away, mumbling about the next time. Just then Teeny saw Elizabeth waving goodbye to her fifth grade teacher. Teeny stared as Elizabeth walked toward her. Elizabeth’s hips swung back and forth and my God, beneath that windbreaker the girl had the beginnings of breasts. Teeny could see that they would need to go to the mall all right, but maybe not just for sandals. Standing there, watching Elizabeth, Teeny couldn’t help but suck in her breath.
Back at Laura’s house, Teeny turned up the heat to take the northern chill out of the air and then began to think about dinner. She and Alexander had their habits: he did the shopping and he would leave something simple for her to prepare on the second shelf of the refrigerator. Today she gasped and mumbled a bit to see a whole oven stuffer roaster chicken sitting there — that took too long to cook! Unexpectedly, Alexander walked in the back door. Two hours earlier than usual. He laughed a little to see Teeny talking to a chicken. “Rough day at work?” he asked.
She stuttered. She somehow did not see this as funny. No, no, she said, work was the same.
“Rough day with the kids, then?”
“You’re home early, aren’t you?” What was he doing home, anyway? She and Alexander had a habit of not being in the same place for too long at the same time. It had always been this way. When Laura was alive, she used to hustle Teeny out the front door whenever Alexander arrived home early at the back door, as if Teeny had been a mistress.
“Yeah,” he said. “I needed a break.”
Teeny leaned against the counter and waited.
“I’m thinking about going out tonight,” he said. “So maybe you don’t have to make dinner.”
“What about the kids?”
“Well, what I was thinking was . . . I mean, I thought that . . . listen, Teeny, why don’t we sit down at the table and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.”
Teeny sat down. She moved the salt and pepper shakers, a deer and a moose, back and forth.
Alexander pulled out a chair. He closed his eyes. “You know how I’ve been going to this widow and widower’s group.”
Teeny knew. She also knew that on Thursday nights he’d been dressing differently and staying out later. And the kids had told her that on weekends they’d had a lot of babysitters lately, bored teenagers who talked on their cell phones while heating frozen things in the microwave. Teeny hadn’t much minded that soon after Laura’s death, Alexander had limited Teeny’s caretaking to the Tuesday/Thursday arrangement because, he had said, their after-school care on the other days came with sports and music lessons. Opportunities, he had said. But now, sitting with Alexander, she saw her two days growing more slender indeed.
“You know how I miss Laura.” He opened his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “And this group, it’s just been so good, for a lot of reasons.”
“And I’ve met this widow there. Here name is Claudette. She has one son, the same age as Brendan, in fact. The kid’s a total lunatic for basketball, see. Cute kid, real cute. And tonight, well tonight, at the last minute, Claudette got these tickets, four free tickets for a Celtics game.”
“Right, four tickets. And like I said, her kid’s a nut for the Celtics, and I thought it might be a good time for Brendan, too. He likes the Celtics. And we’d be back in the morning; we’ll stay at Claudette’s parents’ house, in Boston. Very spur of the moment.”
Teeny picked up the saltshaker, examined it. “Don’t you think that Elizabeth might like the Celtics, too?”
“But Claudette only has the four tickets. Elizabeth can go another time. Claudette gets free stuff like this all the time. I think this might be a good time for the boys to meet, you know, to bond together.”
“So you don’t want the chicken.”
“No,” Alexander said.
“And you don’t want Elizabeth.”
“Now wait a minute,” Alexander said, shoving his chair back from the table. “There’s no reason to be rude here.”
Teeny stood and put the chicken back in the fridge. “I’m just trying to figure out my night, Alexander. And Elizabeth’s night.”
“It’s not a big deal, Teeny. You’d just watch her this one night,” Alexander said. “It’s not like I’m getting married.”
“Yet,” Teeny said.
“Yet,” Alexander echoed, and then he coughed.
It went just as well when he explained his plan to Elizabeth.
So there’s this woman, Claudette . . . and her son!
No, not you, Elizabeth, I meant Brendan!
Teeny knocked and then opened the door to Elizabeth’s room. On the walls posters, hung from haphazard bits of tape, were angled in that crazy pre-teen way. Teeny ignored the urge to rearrange things.
She sat on Elizabeth’s bed. “Why don’t we do something special,” she said. “Just the two of us. After all, we have the whole night!”
“Dad sucks,” Elizabeth said.
“Don’t say ‘sucks,'” Teeny said. “Say ‘stinks.'”
“Okay, Dad STINKS.” Elizabeth said, sitting up. Her face was swollen from her pillow-muffled crying. “DO YOU HEAR THAT DAD?” she yelled. “YOU STINK!”
“TEENY THINKS SO TOO!”
“That’s going a little too far, maybe,” Teeny said, although really, it wasn’t. Claudette. A little boy just Brendan’s age. Not married — yet. The words felt like cotton in her ears.
“Can we sleep at your house?” Elizabeth asked. “Tonight? You can bring me to school tomorrow. I don’t ever want to meet his sucky Claudette.”
“Okay,” Teeny said. And this time, she didn’t even correct Elizabeth with “stinky.”
“Are you sure, honey?” Alexander had his back against the front door, as if to block their neat departure. To Teeny, Alexander seemed confused and slightly sick, what with the way he was holding his stomach with one hand and his hair with the other. He actually patted his own stomach for comfort as he watched Elizabeth in the hallway, shouldering a big drawstring bag of clothes.
“I think it’s for the best,” Teeny whispered to him, leaning one shoulder against the hallway wall. “A little break.” Anyway, she thought, he should feel sick. His sucky Claudette.
“Teeny has better cable,” Elizabeth said to her brother, bending toward his face. “Do you hear that, Brendan? You might be at The Garden but I’m going to watch bad cable. And we’re going out for Chinese food. And I’m going to stay up late. And go shopping.”
Brendan tied his too-tight sneakers. “Whatever,” he said. “Can we go, Dad?”
“You don’t even get it, dumb-head,” Elizabeth said. “These tickets are not free. Ask Dad what they’re gonna cost us!”
“But Dad said they were.” He turned to Alexander. “Dad, aren’t these tickets free?”
“Yes,” he said, “no,” he said, “Elizabeth!” he said.
Teeny opened the door. Alexander grabbed his daughter around the shoulders to give her a hug but she stiffened and her drawstring bag thudded to the ground. “Elizabeth,” he said softly this time, into her hair. “This isn’t exactly what I planned. It’s all wrong.” He pulled back. Looking at the bag on the floor he added: “Hey, isn’t that a lot of clothing for just one night?”
The hallway seemed suddenly tight. Alexander waited. Teeny, having been chosen, was feeling generous. She reached over to pat him on the back, but Elizabeth cut between them before her hand even landed.
“What do you care?” Elizabeth said. “Maybe I can get Teeny to keep me!”
They started with the sandals. Strappy and sort of high with a cork heel. Elizabeth had said she didn’t want baby sandals like last year’s, those were all white with goony appliquéd flowers on them. “These are awesome!” Elizabeth crowed, admiring her feet. “Can I wear them out of the store?”
It was too cold for that — April in Vermont, after all — but Teeny said okay. Elizabeth was so beautiful, she noticed anew. In fact, Elizabeth looked like a mix of Laura and of Teeny herself, almost as if the two sisters had cut Alexander out of the genetic deal. Elizabeth had the heart shape of Laura’s impish face but she had Teeny’s dark hair and dramatic eyes and brooding ways. Teeny didn’t mind laying claim to that brooding, but then again, she didn’t really welcome it tonight. Teeny needed to broach another subject and for that, she needed Elizabeth to be in a good mood.
“Elizabeth,” she said, as the saleswoman moved off with the shoebox to ring up the sale, “have you noticed that you might be changing?”
Elizabeth looked at her sandaled feet.
“My feet are bigger?” she asked hopefully.
“Yes, your feet,” Teeny said, “but other things too.”
“Do you mean my chest?” she said, crossing her arms. “Is that what you mean?”
“Yes,” Teeny said. “Do you think you are getting breasts?”
She said she didn’t think anyone had noticed. Could notice.
“Well,” Teeny said, “of course I noticed. I notice everything. Let’s keep shopping, okay, before we go for Chinese food.”
So Elizabeth wore one of the new bras and the sandals to the food court.
“I feel different,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Teeny said.
“I’m not sure I like it.”
Teeny held her hand for just a second, proud of herself for knowing, somehow inside, that she shouldn’t hold it for too long. “You’ll get used to it.”
Elizabeth sat down at the nearest table. She seemed to be looking anywhere but at Teeny.
“Lizzy-dish,” Teeny added, using Laura’s silly pet name, “You can get used to just about anything. We have already, right?” Elizabeth tilted her head toward Teeny and gave a small smile.
Soon Elizabeth had eaten her teriyaki chicken and finished the remainder of Teeny’s, too.
“You even eat like a teenager,” Teeny said.
“I might get bigger than you!” Elizabeth said.
“I’d like to see that!” said Teeny. “Not even your mother could pull that one off!”
“Yeah, Mom was tiny,” Elizabeth said. “And really tiny at the end. That’s what I remember. Like a little girl.”
“I remember that, too,” Teeny said.
“Like I was her sister. Her big sister.” Elizabeth said. She bent her head, sucked loudly from her Coke cup and looked as if she might fold right into the table.
“Like we were all three of us sisters!” Teeny said, trying to cheer her niece up. But in a way, she believed it.
“Like Three Musketeers,” Elizabeth said suddenly, and she lifted her head and brightened.
“One for All and All for One!” Teeny cried.
Elizabeth giggled. “That gives me a good idea: Do you want to stay out really late and go to a movie, Teeny?” Teeny said sure, because she couldn’t say no to a giggling girl.
The movie ended after midnight. In the parking lot, Elizabeth teetered a bit in her cork-heeled sandals. “I’m cold, Teeny,” she said, in a little girl voice.
Teeny put an arm over her shoulder. “I have a blanket in the car, for emergencies. You can bundle up in that.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth said, curling into Teeny’s body as they walked. They arrived at the car. Teeny let Elizabeth in, put the passenger seat in the reclining position, helped the tired girl buckle up as if she were a baby, and even tucked the blanket around her.
“Teeny,” Elizabeth said, looking up at her aunt, “can you marry Dad?”
Teeny began the drive back to her apartment building, near the university. She had lived there since graduating from UVM. She could drive these routes through Burlington (mall to home; home to bank; bank to home; bank to Laura’s; Laura’s to mall; and back and back) with her eyes closed, like Elizabeth’s were now. The big little girl sat safe and buckled and snug in the seat beside her, breathing that breezy little sleep of children in strange positions.
Teeny had not answered Elizabeth’s question. Elizabeth had closed her eyes right away is if to take the question back or as if to block out the answer.
No, Teeny couldn’t marry Elizabeth’s dad. She had never liked Alexander, though there was no good reason not to. Laura had known. When Laura first married Alexander she would give Teeny her little lists of complaints (he snores; he chews loud; he listens to his mother) but then she stopped, saying that Teeny remembered too many of them. “You should let things go,” Laura had said once. “Everything blows over eventually.” Alexander had never liked Teeny, either. They agreed on that, anyway.
If only Laura had lived! If only Laura had lived, then Teeny, too, might be married! It wasn’t too late now but somehow, it had gotten too hard. She’d had a “serious boyfriend” at UVM and all the way through the time Laura died, but things didn’t work out after that and Teeny didn’t know why. His name was Rene but he liked to call himself Skip. In private, Teeny called Skip by his real name; he asked her not to do that in public. He said other students didn’t much like Canadians, especially French ones, and “Skip” sounded better to their ears.
She didn’t really miss Skip, but she missed having a boyfriend. She missed the things they used to do, as well, like all the weekend drives they had taken to Montreal, where Skip’s family lived, and the pidgin French she sometimes spoke in his ear, in early morning, to make him laugh. She liked how well he knew her best of all. She was unpredictable, he said, something no one else had ever seen or said, not even Laura. Teeny had liked this so well that once she had asked him for examples. “Well,” Skip said, “you drive up Rt. 89 like my grandma — on speed. And, you know, in bed, I’m never sure where you’ll end up.”
Skip had gotten bored with her grief, he said at the end. That had helped her get over him, but not over her grief. Who could love a man who could say a thing like that? So what if she had taken on pieces of Laura’s life, “like mittens!” as he had once accused. (She knew it was over when she thought, in response: God, even his analogies are Canadian!) More than once Skip had said the children were not her own children, as if that mattered. Skip had said that she needed to move on, but then again, he hadn’t shown her a route, hadn’t exactly told her how. So he was the one who had moved on, stripping her apartment of all the little things he had always kept there: shaving kit, toothbrush, sweatshirts, boxers and, of course, his hockey skates.
Everything seemed in an eerie way fleeting, everything but the children. Though they often grew from one week to the next, at least they always were solid, permanent, real. More real and important than anything else in Teeny’s own life.
There had been men at the bank: people were always moving in and through and out, and sometimes Teeny felt an urge to flee with them. A year and a half ago, Liam, from Ireland, had asked her out. She had been surprised, even though he had been stopping by her office often to chat, or to ask questions that he must have already known the answer to, like was there any special protocol that he might have missed with the night deposits, or had he filled out this wire transfer form just right? Sometimes Liam waited at the close of the business day to walk with her to the back parking lot. Locking up the bank with Liam standing close beside her, Teeny should have been able to feel his interest. But she hadn’t, or hadn’t been ready for it, and when Liam asked her out, she had said no, out of nervousness or surprise. Just like that: “No.” She thought maybe he would ask her again, but he hadn’t, and he hadn’t stopped by her office anymore, either, and within two or three months she had noticed a photo of a pretty young woman in a soft calico frame sitting on his desk, and within no time at all they were married at St. Joseph’s and just last week he had been showing an ultrasound around, but not to Teeny.
There was the bank now, sleeping. Low lights in the garden area out front. Bright lights in the parking lot out back. Darkness in the bank itself. Even the cleaning people had already come and gone.
Habit should have pulled Teeny’s car into the parking lot, but tonight she fought that force and instead pulled up to one of the handicapped spaces in front, a space right beside the revolving door and the nighttime drop box. She turned the engine off and just sat while the car ticked ticked toward the finally quiet College Avenue. Elizabeth didn’t even stir.
“Maybe I can get Teeny to keep me!” Elizabeth had said. And Laura had said that everything blew over, eventually. But Laura hadn’t mentioned whether what came next would be better or worse. Here was Alexander, as good as married, and the children, once that happened, as good as gone. Teeny jogged her thigh up and down nervously and her heavy ring of keys — her own keys, Laura’s keys, the bank’s keys — jingled.
The bank’s keys.
She pulled the ring from the ignition and opened the car door. In the morning it was her job to open the night deposit box. She would open it tonight.
At the border, the guard was kind and calm. He looked at Teeny’s license. “How long will you be staying in Canada?” he asked in English.
“A long weekend,” Teeny said, in her uncertain French. “My daughter’s wish!” The guard waved her on.
Pulling away, Teeny looked over at Elizabeth. Asleep, her face looked just like Laura’s. Teeny pressed down the accelerator and the car opened up to that oddly familiar road. Canadian farmland, flat and forlorn, surrounded them now. But the city, and other cities, just like the kingdoms of Canada Teeny and her sister had once created together, surely lay — for her and Elizabeth now — somewhere around the next bend.