She woke up slowly, in the heavy morning heat, because Miss Peskin's voice was calling. "I hate you, Miss Peskin," she thought, through the haze of sleep. "Go away."
"Laurie," Miss Peskin was saying, in her hoarse, used-up voice, "Laurie, wake up. You're needed to go to the drugstore."
"I hate you, Miss Peskin," Laurie thought, and then all at once she heard what Miss Peskin had said. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
"Is Nolly worse?" she asked, strapping on her sandals. "Has something happened to him? Where's Mother?"
"I gave your mother something to make her sleep," Miss Peskin said, and smoothed her rumpled nylon uniform down over her bony hips, and combed her hard, rusty hair with her fingers. "Melinda Mae was up all night, too, and I don't want to waken her. So hurry."
The perspiration on Laurie's back turned cold and she shivered all over, and then her fingers started trembling so that she couldn't hook her brassiere and she turned her back to Miss Peskin for help.
"You don't need any brassiere, you with them two ant hills up there," Miss Peskin said, but she closed the hooks swiftly and Laurie shut her eyes and said to herself, "I'm glad I can't see your red, shiny hands, Miss Peskin. I hate you, Miss Peskin." Then she put on her slip and a sleeveless blouse and the same full, flowered skirt she had worn the day before, and started for the bathroom.
"Don't take the time," Miss Peskin said, her ragged voice full of strain and impatience. "I mean, run a comb through your hair, but don't doll up. Brush your teeth when you come back. Doctor called the druggist, and he's coming down to open up and give you what we need. Then scoot right back."
Laurie looked into Miss Peskin's homely face, and she felt something green and bitter come into her mouth. "Something terrible happened to Nolly during the night," she said. "I know it did. You had Melina Mae stay and she's never stayed overnight all the time she's been with us. Why didn't you wake me up?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Miss Peskin said, her voice rising. "What a time she picks to be an actress! Just go on, will you? Here, take the money and go." She shoved a few moist, balled dollar bills into Laurie's pocket and walked back into Nolly's room.
"She thinks I don't count at all," Laurie thought, running down the stairs instead of ringing for the elevator because she didn't want Riley, the elevator boy, to see her without lipstick and her hair not fixed. "Just wait till I get a chance to tell Mother how nasty-fresh you are to me, Miss Pesky Peskin. Just wait. That will be the end of you, and good-riddance-to-bad-rubbish. Nobody will ever notice you're gone, and after a while we won't even remember who you were."
She ran through the hot empty summer streets, feeling angry and foolish because none of her threats against Miss Peskin were going to come true. They weren't any of them going to forget Miss Peskin, because they weren't ever going to forget this frightening time, even after Nolly got well.
In the beginning, Nolly's being sick hadn't been a bad time at all. He hadn't been very sick to start with, and Mother had even let the doctor convince her that Nolly had one of those vague children's ailments that vanish as mysteriously as they come.
Usually, it was not easy to convince Mother where illness was concerned. "I'm sorry to be such an old rag," she would say apologetically, twisting her fingers, "but when something goes wrong with one of my children I just feel torn to pieces." And it was true. When one of them was sick, she would wear her hair pulled away from her face with one big hairpin, and never use any make-up, and sleep in her clothes. Melinda Mae would stay all day instead of leaving at one, and she would see about the meals instead of just cleaning. Daddy would eat downtown, and Mother would never leave the room of the child who was sick.
Actually, the first few weeks that Nolly was in bed had been a happy, almost exciting time, like an unexpected vacation, because all the ordinary routine was changed, and Mother said she felt so needed that she didn't have a single nervous spell.
"My baby brother's sick," Laurie told the girls she usually had a coke with after school, "and no one knows what's wrong with him. Mother's just beside herself—you know how she gets—and I promised I'd pick up my sister at school and then come right home and keep her company." Then she'd stop by for Connie at the second-grade room, and when they got home Mother would have a pot of tea prepared, and milk and cookies for Connie and Nolly, and they would have an afternoon picnic in Nolly's room. Nolly was still lively, and he'd want Connie to play house. It was her favorite game, too, mostly because Mother would let her wear any of her clothes or jewels that Connie wanted. She and Nolly never changed anything about the way they played it until one day Nolly suddenly said, "I'm the Daddy, and I'm far away downtown. I'm so far away, I can't even see you. You'll have to go in another room, and I'll have to phone."
Connie started giggling and Mother got down on her knees and hunted through Nolly's toy box until she found the old toy telephone, but when she gave it to him, Nolly lay back and said, "I'm tired. I want Connie to read to me."
That was the first time Nolly had said he was tired like that in the middle of the afternoon, but they didn't know then that it was going to be the first time of all the times to come. Mother just smoothed his hair and kissed him on the forehead, and said to Laurie, "Come sit here by Mother, sweetheart, and have some tea."
Then Mother told her again what it had been like to be a girl in Springfield, Massachusetts, and how she'd married Daddy.
"In our group," she said, making her voice gay, "we were all going to be poets and writers and musicians, nothing less. That is, all of us but your father. He was going to be a politician or a banker or something else big—always something big with money. You know how he is; I don't have to tell you. Well, one thing was that Tatita was crazy about him. And let me tell you, when your own mother falls for one of your boy friends, the others don't have a chance. She was always inviting him for dinner or to the shore when we went away in the summer, and she kept a supply of his favorite cigars. You know, he was the first one of all the boys to begin smoking cigars."
"Why did Tatita like him so much?" Laurie asked, avidly, knowing Mother's answer, having known it since she was six.
"Well," Mother said, "it was natural. He was the tallest and the smartest and the handsomest of them all. Don't you think your father is handsome?"
"Mother, he's bald!" Laurie said.
"Ah, when I look at him," Mother said dramatically, like a girl acting in a school play, "I see him with every hair still in his head." And she laughed the way Laurie loved to see her laugh.
"No, but they're very much alike, Tatita and your father," Mother said, biting the corner of her lip gently, in the way she had. "Strong characters, both of them, and I just got crushed between them, like a little bird. Well, Tatita still thinks he's wonderful. But have you noticed, when I say to her, 'How would you like to be married to him, selfish wild man that he is?' have you noticed how she never answers me?"
After that afternoon, everything changed. The next day Nolly had said again that he was too tired to play, and that he wanted to sit on Mother's lap and look out of the window. Melinda Mae got the superintendent to help her, and they brought a big easy chair in from the living room and put it next to the window in Nolly's room, and made a small bed across Mother's lap for Nolly to lie on.
From then on Mother sat that way with Nolly all day and as late into the night as it took him to fall asleep. Nolly half dozed most of the time, but when he was awake he talked almost as much as usual and was interested in everything that he could see through the window.
"When I got sick," he said once, "people were wearing coats and now nobody's got a coat on. When I get well, I'm never going to wear a snowsuit again. I want a coat like Daddy's, with buttons, and a pocket up on top." And he made other plans for the future. "When I have my birthday," he said, "and I'm four years old, I'm going to get a two-wheel bike and go down that big hill, no hands. You have to promise not to put your hands over your eyes, Mommy. You have to watch."
Mother would listen and answer him, but after the first week she only stroked his hair when he talked, and rocked him and nodded, her eyes dry and burning and the rest of her face like ashes.
There were no more tea parties in the afternoon and Laurie began to send Connie back to the playground after school so that she could just sit quietly in Nolly's room with Mother. The doctor came every day and now Laurie knew that Nolly had something wrong with his heart, or the covering over his heart. The doctor had taken one of Connie's crayons and drawn a picture of the heart on the back of a Little Red Hen coloring book, to explain to Mother what the trouble was, but Mother couldn't see it because her eyes were so full of tears.
"He's going to get well," the doctor said. "Believe me, he'll be well. He'll always have to be careful, you'll have to keep him from racing around, but people with weak hearts live the longest—they have to learn to take care of themselves."
Mother turned her face toward the wall, away from the doctor, but Laurie believed every word he said. Then, a few days later, when she came home after dropping Connie off at the playground, she had heard Mother and Tatita talking. Even before she heard her, Laurie knew Tatita was there because as she walked through the house she could smell her special summer combination of perfume and dusting powder and witch hazel skin freshener. She went into Nolly's room and sat down next to Tatita on Nolly's youth bed, and without turning or stopping the conversation with Mother, Tatita put out her soft, strong, wrinkled old hand and reached for Laurie's hand and squeezed it.
Nolly was asleep on Mother's lap, and Mother was talking in her low, dead voice. Her lips had become so chapped and swollen they looked almost white, and when she talked she moved them slowly, as though they were heavy and it was a painful thing to do.
"So he left this morning," Mother said. "I told him what the doctor said about the baby, and he said, 'It sounds like something that's going to stretch itself out, and I can't put the trip off any longer,' so then he got up this morning and left. Laurie didn't even see him, did you, darling? I told him, 'I'm afraid to be alone at a time like this,' and he said, 'There isn't any way I can stay home and hold your hand and make money at the same time. I can't afford it, but if you want to get a nurse, go ahead and get a nurse.' Well, all right, I'll get a nurse. I have to have somebody. But is that a substitute for a husband to turn to when you need him, for a person close to you that you can talk to?"
"Eighteen years," Tatita said. "Eighteen years and you're still trying to change him. He is what he is, and that's the end of it. He's not going to change. You knew everything about him the day you married him that you know now. So make up your mind to it once and for all—no amount of your suffering and showing your wounds is going to make him change."
"You sound just alike," Mother said, "you know it? Both of you are hard people, sadists, and all my life I've been hurt, first by you and then by him."
"You're a fool," Tatita said, her low, rich voice suddenly full of feeling. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve it. God knows I'm not a fool myself, but all my children have turned out fools."
"Ah, call me a fool," Mother said. "All right, I'm a fool. I'm a lot of other things too—worse things, much worse. But remember, I've had a lot of time to think, sitting here with my baby dying in my arms, and there isn't anybody I'd want to wish my thoughts on."
"You spoil your whole life this way," Tatita said. "It's your sickness that you can only think in extremes. The doctor, everybody, tells you he'll get well, but you can only talk about his dying."
Mother lifted her head and looked straight at Tatita. "You really think he's not, Mama?" she said. "You really think I could hold my child in my arms day and night and not know that he's dying? I let everybody lie to me because what difference does it make? My baby is turning blue. I've been sitting here and watching him turn blue and watching him die. You really think that I don't know?"
Her words sounded tired and old, as though they'd lived inside her a long time before she said them, and that's when Laurie knew there was no use believing what the doctor had said about Nolly getting well and only having to be careful. She knew that what Mother had said was true in a way that even Tatita could not do anything about.
Miss Peskin had come two days later, and as soon as she stepped into the house, tall and spare and sharp-boned, with her surprising chopped-up voice, she made it clear who was important and who wasn't. Nolly and Mother were important; and Melinda Mae and Tatita sometimes got in under the line; but Laurie and Connie were banished. They could not get into Nolly's room and they could not get to talk to Mother.
Once or twice, when Miss Peskin was eating or had gone out for one of her five-minute walks, Laurie went in to see Mother and to tell her about Miss Peskin, but Mother only said, "It's better this way, darling. You've been in too much. Now that school's out, you should get more fresh air. Do you play tennis in the mornings now? Are you and Connie eating enough? Take care of one another, darlings. Don't mind about Miss Peskin. She's a good, hard-working woman, and she tries her best. She has her troubles too. Thank you for coming in to see me, but you go out now, dearest. She'll be back any minute and we have to try to get the baby to take a new medicine."
Laurie hadn't realized how much of a sick-room smell had grown in Nolly's room. She stood in front of Mother and smelled the syrup and the bitter herbs of all the medicines that had been used from the beginning, and the thin sharpness of rubbing alcohol, and she felt a silent wretched crying begin inside her.
Laurie had never before seen Mother look at her with her eyes empty and glazed over with dullness, and never before, in all the years of her life that she could remember, had Mother ever had a problem or a worry that she had kept separate from her.
Once Laurie heard Melinda Mae talking to her cousin Lessie Mae in the kitchen, her quick Jamaican speech with its lovely high and low accented beats making whatever she said sound like a small confidential chant.
"I tell you that that lady of mine," Melinda Mae said, "she is a fine breeding hen and she is also a fine mothering hen, and she does have a miraculous love for all of her three chicks, but I tell you that Laurie is the one who is her heart."
But now Mother was wrapped away from her in the most terrible trouble she'd ever had, and she didn't need her and Laurie didn't know what to do. Once she had gone to the door of Nolly's room and, because she heard him talking and knew he was awake, she had gone in.
"Hello, sweet thing," she said to Nolly, turning her head away from Miss Peskin's glare.
"Daddy sent me a post card," Nolly said. "I read it myself. It's a picture of a bunch of fish."
Laurie's head jerked swiftly toward Mother. "Oh," she said, "did you hear from Daddy? What did he say? When is he coming back?"
"Nothing, dear," Mother said, without looking up. "It was only a card with Nolly's name on it. No message, just signed 'Dad.'"
"No," Miss Peskin said briskly, "there has been no word from the big businessman. And now it's time for all the company to go."
Laurie knew then that Mother had even been talking to Miss Peskin about Daddy, and she felt herself grow warm all over with shame. She bent and put Nolly's blue cold hand to her hot cheek, and then went into her own room and stood at the window and looked out until Connie came in and leaned against her.
"I don't know what to play with today," Connie said. "Can I go out, Laurie?"
"You're stepping on my foot," Laurie said. "For heaven's sake."
"I am not. I am not stepping on your foot," Connie said, leaning more of her weight against Laurie. "I'm not even close."
"You always step on my foot," Laurie said, bitterly. "Always."
"I don't know what to do," Connie said. "Laurie, can I go out and play?"
"Why ask me?" Laurie said. "I don't care what you do. Why don't you go around and talk to the neighbors? Why don't you tell them how Daddy locks you in the closet at night and Mother makes you scrub the floors and clean the toilets, and Melinda Mae makes you stand still and concentrate on a speck of dust until your eyes cross and you see big rings of light. Why ask me? I don't care what you do."
"Laurie, you always told me to ask you," Connie said, her lips trembling, and the tears in her eyes beginning to spill. "You always said I had to ask you."
"I'll tell you who to ask," Laurie said. "Go in and ask Miss Peskin."
"You're mean," Connie screeched, holding the back of her hand to her running nose, her face blotched and bathed in tears. "You're the meanest person in the whole world!"
"Good," Laurie said fiercely. "Good. I'm glad to hear it. I'm absolutely relieved to hear it, in fact, because that's my whole entire purpose in life."
After that Laurie had spent less and less time in the house. She played tennis in the mornings and went to air-cooled movies with Connie in the afternoons, and walked around the park with the girls in the evenings after dinner. The boys from the tennis courts were always there, and although Laurie had never had a conversation with a boy that lasted more than two or three minutes, they had all known one another for a long time, and everyone knew that someone in her family was very sick and maybe dying.
Walking with the girls toward the park and pretending with them that they were going because it was cooler and not because the boys were there, Laurie felt herself apart, estranged by the secret despairs in which she now spent her days; but there was no change in the feelings she had when she was near the boys. Although she had seen them at the tennis courts almost every day since Junior High School, she had only begun to have those feelings in the spring, and she still wasn't sure what to do with them. The only thing she was sure about was that she hated the quick tension in her throat when she saw the boys, either singly or in groups, because it was hard to feel breathless and also poised and alert, and like the predestined heroine of a fatal contest.
Laurie didn't know what the contest was about, but it never occurred to her to question its existence, or her exact role in it. Very simply, you won if you made a boy feel bad, even for a minute, though of course boys didn't have feelings the way girls did. The most you could hope for was to make a boy think you were being friendly and admiring, and then snub him in a way that left no margin for doubt. It was fairly easy because for some reason boys never suspected you ahead of time; only you had to keep doing it over and over because when you hurt a boy's feelings, it didn't last.
Laurie was pretty sure that none of the members of the male sex had to worry about feelings because they always had something they could do right away to make themselves whole and unwounded again. If they were boys they could do something with a ball—a baseball, or a handball, or a basketball, or a football, or a tennis ball, or a ping-pong ball; and if they were men they could always do something big about money and go out of town.
Sometimes, trembling with a kind of triumphant excitement, Laurie used to come home and tell Mother about the things that went on between her and the boys.
"…And so then two of them walked me home, Mother, all the time expecting I was going to invite them up for a coke or something. I didn't say I was going to, but I knew what they expected. I could tell. And then when we got to the house I just turned and said, 'Good night. Thank you very much for walking me.' And Mother, you should have seen their faces. They looked silly! Just plain dumb silly."
"But darling," Mother would say, interested and smiling, smoothing Laurie's hair back from her forehead, "that wasn't very nice."
Now, of course, there was no possibility of telling Mother anything, and as soon as she got home at night all the restless happiness would run out of her, and she felt lonely and defeated. She would open the door to Nolly's room softly and whisper good night to Mother, but she hadn't gone in until last night.
It had turned suddenly cooler, and walking back from the park with the girls and boys Laurie had felt her full skirt swinging against her bare legs, and the insides of her thighs touch and move against one another. When she got home, she went into Nolly's room and knelt in front of him and Mother, and her head seemed filled with sparks. She put one finger to Nolly's sleeping face, and saw how aged and thin it had become in the past nine weeks, so that if you looked carefully you could see the man he would have grown up to be. Something swelled in her throat and she held it there as though she knew she would never recover if she swallowed it, until the lump broke into tears.
"Why are you crying?" Mother said gently, out of the darkness, as though she were speaking in a dream.
"I don't know," Laurie said.
She got up and went into the bathroom and closed the door and knelt down on the bath mat. There was a pain in her chest and she locked her hands into a fist. "Dear God," she said, "please don't let Nolly die. He looks just like me." It wasn't what she had intended to say, but now that she had said it she couldn't, of course, take it back. What she had wanted to do was pray for Nolly's life, and tell someone who would listen that she couldn't bear it to lose any part of herself or to have anything that was hers ever taken away.
And now, very early this morning, Miss Peskin had wakened her and sent her off through the hot streets to the drugstore.
The druggist was there, wrapping up the prescription. He was unshaven and still pale from sleep and there was a smell of fresh coffee around him. He hadn't put on his white coat, and he was wearing a red rayon sport shirt that had "Miami Beach" written over it in different colors.
When she got back there was a feeling of movement in the house, as though it had suddenly become the middle of the day. Miss Peskin met her at the door and took the package from her without saying anything and went back to Nolly. Tatita had already come, and she was sitting at the head of the dining-room table, still wearing her hat, and staring over the top of the morning paper that she held in front of her. Melinda Mae bustled past carrying a tray, with a folded white linen towel over her arm, and Connie was walking around aimlessly, all dressed except that she was wearing the top of her pajamas for a blouse. There was an open telegram on the table that said, "Arriving 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Love, Dad."
"Did Mother see this?" Laurie asked Tatita.
"No," Tatita said absently. "I mean, yes, she knows. Miss Peskin gave her the message." She took off her hat and held it for a moment as though she couldn't remember what a hat was, and then put it down on a side chair. "I suppose you children should have something to eat," she said, without moving.
Laurie and Connie went into the kitchen and found cold cereal and bananas. Laurie didn't eat hers, but Connie did and a little while later went into the bathroom and was sick. Tatita helped clean her up, and while Laurie was getting fresh clothes for her, two men in white suits came to the door with a big tank.
"Oxygen," one of them said, looking blank. "We're supposed to collect now."
"Get some money out of my purse," Tatita said vaguely. "I don't know how much I've got in it."
Laurie opened Tatita's purse but her hands were so wet and cold she couldn't take the money out of the wallet. She handed the men the wallet and they took out some money and gave her change. She shoved the bills and coins into the purse, and left it open on the table. The men picked up the tank and she showed them where to take it.
After they left, she walked all around the rooms of the house and counted to one thousand and thirty-four before she went back and opened the door into Nolly's room.
The room was clean and bright, and the chair that Mother had been sitting in with Nolly was in a corner, with the bedding neatly folded on it. Nolly was lying on his bed with his eyes closed, and Miss Peskin was sitting on the edge of the bed holding a black cone close to his face. Mother was sitting in a chair with her arms wound around her middle, rocking herself. A small sound kept falling from her mouth, and the light, cold smell of oxygen was over everything.
Laurie felt a roaring start in both sides of her head as though her ears had turned into seashells and she went over and touched Mother's knee. "Mother?" she said.
Mother looked at her with blind eyes, and pressed her lips together and shook her head. Miss Peskin shifted her position on the bed but didn't look up, and Laurie left and went into the kitchen. Melinda Mae had emptied all the drawers and cupboards and was wiping each individual jar and bottle and can. "I've had it in mind to get at this complete mess for the fullest year," she said severely, as though the things in the kitchen had been fighting with her.
Tatita was sitting at the kitchen table cleaning the silver pieces Mother used only on holidays. Her heavy rings flashed, slipping around on her thin fingers. "If there is anything more useless than cleaning big, ugly pieces like this, I'd like to know what it is," she said, speaking partly to Melinda Mae and partly to no one. "When she got married, she said, 'Mama, I want the serving pieces,' and I said, 'Take them. Take them and good riddance.' And do you believe me, I've never missed them for a moment? My children cleaned me out when they left home. Books, records, silver, linens, furniture. They were like birds, exactly like birds I've heard about, wanting to destroy the nest because they were leaving. It must be a great disappointment to them that I've missed nothing. Absolutely nothing."
The doctor came in without ringing the bell and went past them and then was back a few moments later, bustling and antiseptic. Tatita was waiting for him at the door and she put a hand on his arm.
"My friend," the heavy old doctor said. He was panting a little, and his summer suit was wet across the back. "My dear old friend. Sometimes we can only…" He patted Tatita's shoulder and put his hand on the doorknob. "I'll be in touch, every half hour. I'll be back in the afternoon. We can only wait." He bowed his head and stopped for a moment, preparing something he was going to say, but he walked out without saying it.
Tatita stood at the open door until he went down in the elevator; then her shoulders fell, and when she turned she put out her hand to feel her way along the wall. Laurie moved toward her, but Melinda Mae got to her first. She put her short black arms around Tatita's thin waist to steady her, and Tatita reached out to Melinda Mae, and Laurie felt Connie begin to shiver next to her when Tatita and Melinda Mae, holding on to one another, started rocking silently in the sunny kitchen.
"Laurie," Connie whispered, pulling on Laurie's dress, "could we go for a little walk, please?"
"Not right now," Laurie said. "I'll read to you now." She wondered, if she went in and pressed herself against Mother, would some of the pain flow into her, just enough so that Mother would be left with an amount that she could stand.
They went into Connie's room and Laurie got a pillow and sat down in a corner on the floor with Connie in her lap. She read Dickens' A Christmas Carol from beginning to end, and Connie cried through the whole thing and then had hiccoughs.
"Listen," Laurie said carefully, "I know you're too old for naps, but sometimes after someone has been sick at their stomach, it's a good thing to do."
"Okay," Connie said, and took off all her clothes and got into bed. "You're good," Connie said. "You're being very good, Laurie."
"No, I'm not," Laurie said passionately. "I'm hateful."
She went into the bathroom and combed her hair and put on a lot of lipstick. She knew that people had been coming into the house, and that she didn't want to see any of them. Her two young aunts, whom Tatita didn't like because they were married to her sons, were in the living room, talking in their high, light voices. Her youngest uncle, Tatita's favorite, was walking up and down in front of them, loose and gangly in his white linen suit, whistling through his teeth and banging his right fist into his left hand, like a ball player. From the kitchen, she could hear the voices of two of Mother's old friends, and in the study she saw a man with a hat on his knees whom she had never seen before.
Laurie looked around the corner of the kitchen door and Melinda Mae came out. "He is your daddy's broker," she said. "He said he has business with your daddy, and he's waiting upon him. Also, he said your daddy wired him to come early and see if there be anything he can make himself helpful about whatsoever. I am fixing him some iced coffee out of respect. There is an entire possibility that your lipstick is too thick and will melt in this heat and run into your mouth."
Laurie took the tissue Melinda Mae had given her and blotted her lips because it was all right for Melinda Mae to talk to her in this way. "It's almost time, isn't it?" she said. "Daddy should be here almost any time now, shouldn't he?"
"It is what we are all waiting upon," Melinda Mae said quietly, and then suddenly there was a scream. It was Mother's scream, and she came running through the house as though her dress had caught fire. All the people who had been waiting rushed after her and caught her, and Mother threw her arms up and looked around wildly before her knees folded under her.
Laurie ran into Nolly's room and saw that Miss Peskin was still sitting on the bed with the cone over Nolly's face, and although Nolly's eyes were closed and his face was still, he was talking.
"Mama," Nolly said. "Mama. Mama. Mama."
"I have to get Mother," Laurie said thickly. "Don't you hear him? He wants Mother."
"No," Miss Peskin said. "No. That's just a dying sound." She lifted her head and looked around the room, but her eyes kept sliding off things, and when Laurie saw Miss Peskin's tipsy eyes she drew a big breath and said, "Go on and have a drink of water or something." Miss Peskin shook her head and right after that Nolly stopped talking.
Miss Peskin got up from the bed and walked over to the chair and put her face in her hands. "He was such a beautiful child," she sobbed.
"Yes, he is," Laurie said politely, but there was too much she couldn't believe yet, and she couldn't cry.
She looked at Nolly once before she left: at his pale, quiet face and the way his dark hair lay on his forehead in false curls from the heat.
There seemed to be a great deal of noise in the rest of the house, and she felt herself get angry. Her legs stopped shaking and she went into the hall. The mixture of voices sounded shrill and ugly and she went back and closed the door to Nolly's room, as if to protect him from any more unpleasantness.
Tatita was walking up and down outside Mother's room, her head thrown back and her fists against her mouth, not making a sound, and Connie was holding on to her dress and walking with her. Laurie slipped into Mother's room, and one of her young aunts said, "Where have you been? Your mother's been asking for you."
Mother was sitting up very straight and stiff, as though she had been strapped into the electric chair. She wasn't crying or making any sounds of grief, and Laurie could see in Mother's black, sunken eyes that she already believed what Laurie hadn't been able to bring herself to believe.
Mother said, "How are you, darling?" She was hoarse, as though her voice had gone on screaming somewhere all the while that she'd been still.
"I'm all right," Laurie said.
"Well," Mother said, almost conversationally, "now we don't have our baby any more."
"Mother dear, you're so tired," Laurie said. "Come and lie down."
"Laurie," Mother said, "there's something I want you to promise me. I want you to promise to forgive Daddy."
Laurie knew then that Daddy's going away and not getting back in time was one of the things that Mother was never going to forgive him for, so she didn't promise.
Mother let Laurie lead her over to the bed, but she wouldn't put her head down until the doctor came in and gave her a hypodermic. Tatita and Connie came in and all three of them sat with her until Mother fell asleep. She fell asleep quietly; the only thing was that once she closed her eyes, tears started running down her face slowly and regularly and as though they were never going to stop.
Laurie went into the kitchen where it was still afternoon and everything was bright and hot. Melinda Mae was standing at the sink with a dirty dish in her hand, looking at the running water. When she saw Laurie she put down the dish and wiped her face and neck. "I am a plenty slow coach today," she said. "It is because of being so bereft."
All the people who had been waiting began to go home, and even Daddy's broker left. "Won't you give your father my condolences?" he said at the door.
"Yes, thank you," Tatita said for her.
The doctor stood at the door with Miss Peskin's bag, and when he turned and held out his arm Miss Peskin walked toward him. She looked as though she was able to move only out of admiration for the doctor, and Laurie was sorry because she was so tired, but that didn't change what she felt about her. Now that Miss Peskin was going, Laurie knew she would have Mother back again, but never in the way it had been before. "I hate you, Miss Peskin," she thought, while she and Tatita and Connie and Melinda Mae said good-by.
The day started dying slowly. There were long shadows in all the rooms and it was a relief to have the bright sun finally gone. She and Tatita closed the door to Nolly's room and Mother's room and put Connie to bed. Tatita sent Melinda Mae home in a taxicab so that she could stretch out in the back seat and go to sleep, and after she left, Laurie and Tatita went into the study to wait for Daddy.
Tatita dozed, sitting upright in a big chair, but Laurie found it hard to sit still. She went into the bathroom and wet her head under the faucet and set her hair in an entirely new way. Then she put polish on her toenails and experimented with drawing black lines around her eyes to give them depth. All the while she was doing these things, she made up an elaborate guest list for a party to which she wouldn't invite the boys from the tennis courts. When she went back into the study, she thought she ought to read the Bible, but she'd never been able to do it before, and she couldn't now.
And then when all the streets and the rooms were dark, with no day left in them at all, Daddy came home. He came in with a great rush, his suitcase in one hand and his big present for Nolly in the other, and even in the heat, he seemed to bring a gust of air with him.
"First the plane had trouble, then the damn traffic," he said. "I had the taxi drive up on the sidewalk—"
When he saw their faces Daddy put down the things he was carrying and got very white, except for his ears which swelled up red. He looked at Tatita and she put her hand on his arm.
"She's asleep," Tatita said. "It happened this afternoon, before you were due."
"Nolly died?" Daddy said at last, and just for a minute Laurie saw how he must have looked when he was a young man in Springfield, Massachusetts, and still absolutely sure that he could do anything in the world. He stood in front of them with the look of disbelieving that anything bad could ever happen to him that he couldn't do anything about, and then he walked into the dining room on stiff legs. He passed his hand over his eyes and then he leaned over and banged his fist into the dining room table. Tatita pulled Laurie away, so she didn't see Daddy break down, but she heard his sobs and his fist beating on the table, and she felt it was like a big house falling.
She went over to the window and looked out at the street lights. After a while the boys and girls started coming home from the park. The girls walked quietly, trying to make it look as though they were more or less paired off with the boys, but the boys kept running ahead, throwing imaginary balls and catching them, or having sudden wrestles with one another.
Laurie realized suddenly that she wasn't as worried about Mother as she had been before. She knew that Mother was going to be able to stand anything she had to because she was prepared by her fears. All her life Mother had been sure that things went on that you couldn't do anything about, and when you expected to be helpless, there was a kind of strength and protection that you got from admitting it in the beginning. The thing that was hardest of all was having to live your whole life without letting yourself believe that it was possible for things to happen to you that you couldn't change or stop.
She leaned out of the window so that she could see the last of the boys at the end of the block, running and tackling in the night.
"I'm going to invite all the boys to my party," she thought. "Their feelings will be hurt if I don't. I'm going to change my whole guest list."