A little before Christmas, when the steam pipes had wakened her by rattling more loudly than usual, a woman sitting in a kitchen in Manhattan read an account of her own death in the morning newspaper. She had picked up the paper in a fog; while water dripped into her coffee machine and the pipes rattled and knocked, she read, and then re-read, a small, two-inch article with a dateline from Belfast.
Mary Flynn, returning from a neighborhood shop where she had gone to purchase milk, had been hit in the face with a plastic bullet. It was the sort of bullet used by the British Army for crowd-control during riots, but since there had been no rioting in the Catholic district at the time, no special unrest on the street where Mary Flynn had lived, the shooting was rather a mystery. The doctor who examined her in death said she had been fired upon at quite close range. She had died on her way to the hospital.
The woman at the table read the article a third time, hoping to find something which would explain more fully the manner of the child’s death, but nothing more could be extracted from the few lines. She understood that she was not, in fact, perusing a description of her own death, but she, too, had once been Mary Flynn. The Mary who waited for her morning coffee was in her thirty-seventh year; the one who had been killed was twelve years old. Nothing connected them but the name—a common enough name at that time—yet it seemed to the living Mary that a connection must exist. They might have been obscurely related, although her father’s people had not come from Belfast. If one erased the boundaries of fact and nationality, Mary Flynn, given her age, might have been her daughter. She clipped the article and placed it in a drawer containing mail and bits of yarn for wrapping gifts and went to begin her day. In that way, the death, in Ireland, of a Catholic schoolgirl, entered the life of an American woman who had shared her name.
The apartment building where Mary Schiller lived with her husband, Philip, was on West End Avenue. It was a large, fortress like affair with a dim, cavernous lobby which reminded everyone who entered it of a funeral home. The apartments on the higher floors were sunny, though, and even if the tenants were cheated of the river view by a taller building on Riverside Drive, most of them thought they were lucky to have landed in such pleasant quarters. Hardly anyone ever moved out—where would they go to find anything half so nice at the price?
That was the way it had been before the specter of co-operative ownership had arrived to divide them. Many of the tenants were delighted at the prospect of owning their own apartments and spoke glowingly of the advantages of becoming a co-op, such as tax breaks, the enormous investment. Mary’s husband was one of these, and during the long, dull meetings, held in the lobby, he tried to convert the dubious to his point of view. They listened respectfully enough, but their expressions were cynical. Tax breaks were helpful only if our income was, like Philip Schiller’s, large. What good was it to sit on an investment, they asked, if you could not afford to live anymore?
The old people were the most difficult to persuade. No matter how often they were assured that senior citizens could not be forced to buy and would never be evicted, they harbored bitter fears. Many of them were immigrants from central Europe; they had planned to end their days on West End Avenue and knew, despite the soothing words of Mary’s husband and the other vigorous young lawyers and stockbrokers who tried to convert them, that they would be forced from their homes one last time.
When the old people stubbornly refused to listen to his kind of reasoning, Philip’s face would wear a look of put-upon amusement. He would make a little chopping gesture with his hands, as if to dismiss the complaints of a roomful of clamoring children and take his seat again. At such times, Mary disliked him.
In order to shop in the crowded and chaotic stores lining embattled Broadway, one had to cross a traffic island in the middle of the street. Today a small drama was being played out on the island, and Mary, waiting for the light to change, became a part of the audience. The protagonists were colorful. In one corner, a woman of Junoesque proportions, dressed in so many layers of clothing so it was almost impossible to know where the fabric left off and flesh began. In the other corner, a reedy black man whose tattered raincoat, held together by a safety pin, blew open to reveal a sort of loincloth made of fur. The woman was trudging toward him, shaking her fist and mumbling, but the enormous wrappings on her feet were as large as fruit crates, and she could only move a few inches at a time.
“Smile at me, go on, don’t you dare, go on,” the woman chanted, advancing on the man in the shuffling tread. “Smile at me, go on, up your crabapple tree, go on, you got the face of the Antichrist.”
The man waited, resigned, reasonable, even, for the woman to exhaust herself and so leave him in peace, but her rage would not be appeased by such ordinary tactics. Antichrist! Antichrist!” she shouted. Mary was close enough to her to catch her odor, which resembled that of a bag of potatoes not yet scrubbed or brushed. In her early years in New York, she had pitied the mad, homeless creatures of the streets, but she had come to understand that they did not welcome pity. It was not poverty alone prompting them to dress so bizarrely: it was also a way of making sure they would not be approached by any but one of their own kind.
The man spread his arms in a graceful gesture, as if to say he had endured as much as possible, and began to scream on a long, sustained note, throwing his head back to reveal the thin, vibrating cords in his throat. A gust of wind opened his coat to reveal the loincloth more fully, and for the first time Mary realized he was not a black man. Patches of pinkish skin and streaks of beige emblazoned his naked torso. It was the thick coating of dirt, packed solid, that made him look so dark. Now she saw, too, the blue of his eyes, startling in the dark field of dirt. He was young, younger than she.
He continued to bellow at intervals long after the light had changed, and Mary, standing at the counter of the shop where she had purchased a velvet bathrobe for her sister, Dee, thought she could hear him above the muzak Christmas carols and the clashing of the busy register.
The town where Mary and her sister, Dorothea, had grown up contained few surprises. There were always four seasons in the Midwest, and they were ushered in by pleasant and predictable signs—lilacs, peonies, bonfires, and snow. There were four grade schools, two junior highs, and two high schools. You knew which ones you’d be going to because it depended on the quadrant of the town you lived in, and on which side of one river. Nobody asked you what you were in the Midwest, as they inevitably did in New York. There was a certain interest among adults concerning religious differences, but Mary had never thought to herself that Coco Mancini, who had a locker next to hers, was Italian, or that the science teacher, Mr. Swenson, was Swedish. They were all Americans in Mary’s town. She knew that Keithie Klein was Jewish, because he went to synagogue, but whether he was of German or Russian descent, Polish or Lithuanian, was a matter too exotic even for contemplation. The first time someone had asked her what she was, at Barnard, it had taken her some time to interpret the question.
“Irish, I guess.”
She had felt foolish and resented her questioner for making her feel foolish. She had never given it much thought, never said to herself: I am Irish. Her mother and father had never seemed to think of themselves as Irish, either, although their names were Doherty and Flynn, respectively. Only her grandmother, who had died when Mary was fifteen and Dee twelve, would have been capable of such a quaint thought. Her gran was assuredly Irish, but between Mary Doherty and Mary Flynn had stretched an entire generation.
Mary and Dee were sent to Sunday school at an Episcopal church called St. Luke’s, where they obediently sang “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” and colored pictures depicting the life of the Savior. Mary always used two crayons, a yellow and a brown, to arrive at the perfect shade for Jesus’s beard. But although she showed no signs of piety, she was duly confirmed at thirteen, wearing a white dress and composing her face for solemnity. The Bishop of Milwaukee came down to make a Christian of her, and John and Angela watched proudly from a front row.
Dee watched, too, struggling to contain a look of resentment—it would be three years before she could hope to be the center of attention for an entire day. Only Mary’s grandmother was missing. Mary had been told her gran was suffering from a bad bout of rheumatism, but something jarred here. If Gran was suffering, why wasn’t her mother more sympathetic? Angela Flynn’s lips had tightened when she had mentioned rheumatism, and her expression was one of irritation, the same as when the neighbor’s dog had dug up all her newly planted tulip bulbs.
No, Gran had stayed at home for quite a different reason, one no
doubt related to St. Luke’s Church being Episcopal, and the Epis-copal Church being, of course, the Church of England. Gran had a marked aversion for England, something Mary should have remembered on account of the year of the Coronation.
She had been eight years old when the whole town succumbed to Coronation Fever. In the shops on Main street there appeared tea towels and calendars and sugar bowls and date books, all branded with the young queen’s face; people who didn’t normally care for the movies at all had lined up at the Venetian Theater to see films of the coronation on the Movie-tone News, and every radio was tuned in, on the momentous day, to hear the jubilant bells and the thrilling shouts of God Save the Queen!
Mary and her best friend, Fay Dvorak, took turns playing Queen Elizabeth, using a plaster crown won by Fay’s father at the state fair and a fur capelet belonging to Angela Flynn. Mary would place the crown on Fay’s head, kneel reverently, and rise to shout “God Save the Queen!” Then they would switch roles. Mary knew it was only a game, but in her borrowed fur and plaster crown she managed to leap past the childish fantasy of being a princess to become—for a few heady moments—a queen. It was while she was sitting in her finery that the look on Fay’s face became anxious. They were no longer alone. Mary’s first fear was anger over the removal of her mother’s fur from the storage bag, but when she saw her Gran she smiled in relief. Gran would never tell.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Nothing playful, indulgent, here. The tone was sharp, indignant.
“We’re playing coronation, Mrs. Doherty,” Fay said.
“Well, you can stop right now. Mary put your mother’s fur back this instant. I never heard of anything so foolish and wicked”
“We were just playing, Gran. You know—saying ‘God Save the Queen.’”
“If Fay wants to play at being queen, that’s her business, but it’s not for you, Mary.”
Fay had edged out the door nervously, leaving Mary resentful on
two counts—-she regretted the abrupt end to the exhilarating game, and feared Fay might think her grandmother peculiar. When she had returned Angela’s fur to its place, she asked Gran why it was foolish to ask God to save the queen. And Mrs. Doherty thought about it for a long time, seeming to discard several replies. At last, she sighed, took Mary’s hand, and said “Because she wouldn’t save you, Mary. Believe me, in a crunch, she wouldn’t, she’s not your queen.”
Mary loved her grandmother, and if Gran said the new young Queen of England was no friend of hers, it must be true. But still, she felt a sense of loss out of all proportion to the event, and now and then it occurred to her to wonder why her grandmother—who was always calling upon God to bless, preserve, and help out various people—should exclude the Queen of England from the warmth of His love.
She was thinking of the events of Coronation Day even as the Bishop of Milwaukee tapped her upturned face, admitting her to the church of her parents, and, by extension, to the Country Club.
“The Antichrist! You don’t hear about him every day.”
Mary’s friend Stella Brandt smiled down the length of her dinner table, inviting her guests to comment on the odd little story Mary had offered up. “Why don’t I ever meet the Antichrist?” she asked plaintively. A literary agent named Lottie Switzer suggested that it was because Stella and her husband, Harry, lived on Sutton Place. Mary glanced at Philip to see if he might construe this as an insult, but he was looking fondly at her. He liked to think of her as a raconteur, although she told stories too quickly and without real confidence.
“No,” said Stella. “If I met the Antichrist I would just walk on. I wouldn’t recognize him. I don’t have Mary’s gifts of observation.”
Stella was as generous now, presiding over her elegant table, as she had been in the dorms sharing Mounds Bars with Mary and the other members of their inner circle. Stella had always acted first and reasoned later, she, whose fair hair had sprung from her head in electrifying curls long before it was the fashion, seemed always to be saying: Aren’t I silly? But nice, too, there’s no harm in me. Trust me, and we’ll have a good time. It was not her way to conceal her intellect, which was considerable, but to make you forget about it. Mary admired her.
Stella had married a young man with love beads straight out of college. The marriage had lasted little more than a year, after which she had announced she was swearing off marriage forever. But in her late twenties she forgot her vow and married an embittered novelist, a man who had once confided in Mary that of all novelists, living or dead, he ranked himself twelfth. Now she was in the third year of her third marriage and professed to be gloriously happy. Her husband was elderly, rich and extremely kind. Mary disagreed with those who said Stella was ruthless and shrewd, that she had married Harry Brandt for his money alone; if Stella had married a man old enough to be her father; it was for one reason—because she wanted to. Stella loved to play roles, and the fact that Harry could amply afford to subsidize her must have been a very strong inducement, but nothing could have made her marry him if she had not loved him in some fashion. While she loved, she was ardent and loyal. At seventy-two, Harry Brandt might never live to become disillusioned.
Someone at the far end of the table had taken up the subject of the Antichrist in earnest. “He’s not supposed to be Satan, you know,” the man explained. “He is Satan’s prophet.” Kind Harry Brandt caught Mary’s eye, and winked at her in the candlelight. In the taxi, going home, Philip picked up Mary’s gloved hand and danced it in a jaunty rhythm against his thigh. At Park Avenue, he said: “Why were you avoiding Lottie Switzer?”
“I saw you get up and head for the bathroom when she asked me what you were working on.”
“What’s wrong with saying you’re doing magazine articles?”
“For god’s sake, Philip! This one is an article about facial exercises.”
“Couldn’t you be underrating yourself, bunny?”
At the 79th Street transverse he said: “Your friend Stella is too
much. Poor old Harry, she’ll kill him.”
“Then he’ll die happy, won’t he?
When they crossed Broadway, Mary looked to see if the man in the fur loincloth might be camped out on one of the benches, but the traffic island was deserted. It had turned much colder, and she wondered where he had gone, where any of them went.
“What’s wrong with you?” Philip asked.
“Nothing,” said Mary, pressing his hand. “I’m sorry.”
It was not until they were home, Philip snugly dressed for bed in his blue cotton pajamas, that she permitted herself to think of the other Mary Flynn again. While the sound of her husband’s waterpik thrummed from behind the bathroom wall, she lay in their bed and tried to imagine a plastic bullet. How big was it? What sort of gun fired it? Was death so swift there was no time for pain? What sort of child had Mary been? A good one, presumably, obediently running out to buy a pint of milk. What had happened to the soldier who killed her? Why had she died?
She considered telling Philip about Mary Flynn, but the whole time she was rehearsing her words she knew she would not do it. When he emerged from the bathroom she saw, not her husband but a successful lawyer, tall, quick, and agile, who believed he was entering upon the Prime of His Life. He thought of the prime of his life in capital letters, for he was both optimistic and bound by tradition. He believed in many things. Among them were the importance of hard work, the essential inviolability of marriage, his place as a citizen of the best country the world had yet produced, and the conviction that if terrible things happened in other parts of the world, the people to whom they happened were somehow responsible. In some ways he seemed as pure and unsullied as a boy of ten. As a girl she had found this sober dedication intoxicating; he had seemed thrillingly adult. The neat white cuffs of his shirt had acted almost as an aphrodisiac on her, just as the beards and love beads of other young men had excited, for example, Stella.
Long after his breathing had become quiet and regular beside her, she realized why she could not tell him about the girl and the plastic bullet. It was not just the label he would put to it—unfortunate incident-—but the loving way in which he would tell her that the death of Mary Flynn, however sad, had nothing to do with her.
A television announcer with a head of alarmingly elaborate hair appeared on the screen. Behind the blown-dry confection appeared the word MURDER! Nobody in the room noticed. There was no lull in the conversation, since the set had only been switched on because of an impending emergency, and the emergency only affected the hostess. She had turned the television on with an apologetic air, explaining to her guests that great blizzards were about to descend on northern New England where her mother, old and infirm, lived alone in a house in Vermont.
The murder report was of a stabbing in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Neighbors of the deceased were interviewed. They stared into the mini-cam and said they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to kill old Mr. Hermann, who had never harmed a soul. Mary listened to the report with one ear and to the man sitting beside her with the other. He was a sleek little man, wearing a red vest in honor of the holiday season, and he was telling her about a word processor he had recently acquired. The people in the room were associates of Philip’s, and except for one man who was patronizing and a bully, she was reasonably fond of all of them. “It’s your friend,” said her companion. “Once you get used to it, stop being in awe of it, it is your best god-damned friend.” “Yes,” said Mary,” I’ve often thought of getting one.” This was a lie, since the very thought of owning an expensive machine in order to rearrange her thoughts about facial exercises was acutely embarrassing. She could not imagine what use John Beale found for his word processor, since he was an importer of porcelain, but his eagerness touched her.
Next on the screen came a human-interest story about a lost dog whose name was “Christmas”. Christmas had vanished from his Staten Island home and two small boys were desolate. Across the room, Philip accepted another glass of hot mulled wine and laughed at something. In the lights from the Christmas tree his face was softened, younger. The grooves bracketing his mouth, the legacy of his passionate involvement with running, now two years old, were eradicated. The man in the red vest rose to refill his drink, and his place was taken by her hostess. “She loves the idea of being independent,” said the hostess, speaking of her mother. But what would happen if she fell and broke her hip? I can’t help worrying about her. Isn’t it strange how guilty we all feel about our parents?”
Mary thought of Angela Flynn as she had last seen her: trim, well-shod, her hair freshly lightened and tipped, glancing at her wristwatch because she was due at a wine-tasting and feared Mary’s plane would make her late. Wine-tastings were the newest thing in Mary’s town. Everyone listened politely while the lecturer told them of the comparative merits of California Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, and then they fell upon the wines, sampling them in- discriminately, becoming pleasantly “tiddly” as Angela would say, until it was time to climb back into their cars and careen off into the night. Mary could not imagine her mother falling and breaking a hip, even at the most Bacchanalian of these events, and she was about to say so when a map of Ireland bloomed beyond the announcer’s head. A small portion in the northeast was circled by symbols intended to represent barbed wire.
The announcer’s voice was low, intimate, as if intended for her alone. He told her that the Christmas season had been marred, in Belfast, by a new wave of sectarian violence. A bomb had gone off in a Protestant neighborhood, wounding two men. Three hours later, a Catholic father of four had been shot to death in front of his own house. It was clear that the second act had been to revenge the first; the bomb, for which the provisional IRA had claimed responsibility, had been intended for a British soldier. “It is believed,” the announcer said, “that the nail bomb was planted in retaliation for the death of a Catholic school-girl two days ago.”
Now the screen was filled with many shouting soldiers in camouflage. Behind them lay a mean street of closely packed brick houses. Something was on fire, bottles were thrown, a tank came grunting into the road—it was all chaos and destruction, but another voice, a foreign voice this time was relating the details she had committed to memory. The pint of milk, the plastic bullet . . .
“—the death of twelve-year-old Mary Flynn.” Quick, quick! This was the only time she would ever see a likeness of Mary; the pictures faded so rapidly, and in a moment the girl would be replaced by the next news item. The photograph had probably been taken on her birthday, or some momentous school event, for she was smiling self-consciously. There she was, with her round face, red cheeks, blue eyes, and fair hair. And there too, were her pale, furry eyebrows, and a rather pointed chin; she was gone. “Excuse me,” said Mary to her hostess, “What were you saying?” But now it was time for the weather report, and just as they had feared, snow was falling thickly over New England. “When you girls were at home,” Mrs. Flynn sighed into the phone, “we always had such lovely Christmases. Do you remember the Bavarian ornaments, Mary? The ones with little scenes inside clear glass? I wish one of you would take them. You and Dee could divide them. And do you remember the Salvation Army band? They always arrived about ten, and they played ‘It Came upon a Midnight Clear,’ Dad’s favorite, and then we gave them a little something.” “I remember it all,” said Mary. Her mother’s sentimental memories were mainly accurate.
There had been perfume sprayed on the ladies’ fur coats at the house of her grandmother Flynn; there had been thin cut-out cookies made in the shapes of bells and stars, sprinkled with tiny colored flakes of sugar and garnished with edible silver balls. (The Food and Drug Administration had had unkind words for those silver balls, but that was long after Mary had grown up.) On the landing of the stairs loomed a mounted moose’s head which had always given Dee nightmares; at Christmas he wore holly and mistletoe in his antlers and frightened no one.
Mrs. Flynn continued to describe the by-gone festivities, and then, abruptly, launched into a description of the new dress she had purchased for the Holly Ball. Did it sound too young for her? Would she seem mutton dressed as lamb? Dr. Frampton was good enough to volunteer to escort her to the ball. He wanted to say a few words to Mary before they hung up. “Merry Christmas, kiddo, Merry Christmas!” A deep, apologetic voice, pleading to be liked—the voice of Roy Frampton who had been summoned to the phone. He was a podiatrist who drove, according to Dee, a silver BMW car. In the seventh year of her widowhood, Angela Flynn was being courted again. “I hope you’ll call me Roy,” he said, after inquiring about the weather in New York and ascertaining that it was, indeed, an hour later on the east coast. At the end of their conversation, he cleared his throat and said: “Your mother is one hell of a gal, Mary. One hell of a gal.”
Philip’s mother called from Florida, where she lived in a pleasant seaside condominium and played bridge six days a week. She wanted to know if it was true that people were freezing to death in unheated apartments. She had heard about it on television. How could the landlords be so cruel, so unfeeling? “They’re all in Florida, Ma,” said Philip. Mary, smiling into the phone extension and trying to assure Mrs. Schiller of her own and Philip’s health and well-being, was remembering another detail of the Midwestern Christmases her mother had evoked. Always, on Christmas Eve, there had been a moment of unspoken resentment, small but sour, when someone remembered it was time to leave and pick-up Gran. She had to be collected after midnight mass, because Mary Doherty had never learned to drive. It was one of her many peculiarities.
She would be waiting outside the great portico of St. Cecilia’s R.C. church, across the river, wearing a black velvet hat which added three inches to her stature, staring anxiously to the left and right until she had sighted the Flynn Chrysler. Once inside the car, she would be oddly silent and humble, as if she knew she had interrupted her daughter’s festivities, but Mary always regarded her with awe at such times. Gran had been inside a place where unimaginably pagan and glamorous events had taken place. Her mother, sitting in the front seat, might be scented with perfume and scotch whiskey, but Gran smelled of something only available to those brave enough to enter St. Cecilia’s. It clung to the collar of her Persian lamb coat, where it hovered for the space of the brief drive home, and then disappeared. Not until her college days did she recognize it as incense. Because the incense was always mixed with, or masking, the smell of marijuana, an ironic trick of the senses was played on her. The odor of cannabis was always to remind her of her grandmother, who would have been horrified at such a coupling.
The Schillers’ apartment, high-ceilinged and well proportioned, contained one small, low room beyond the kitchen which had doubtless once been intended for a maid. Adjoining it was a tiny bathroom containing a toilet with an old-style pull chain and a tiny bathtub. Mary always found it odd that the bathroom should ever be called a “half-bath” with quotes around the words, because the tub was, quite literally, half a tub. Any person bathing in it would have to be half the size of a normal human being. “People were smaller in those days,” Stella had said on first viewing the maid’s room. “No,” her second husband, the novelist, had replied. “Only the maids were smaller, darling. They shrank during all those months in steerage.”
Philip and Mary had assumed the little room would be a baby’s nursery when they first took the apartment on west End Avenue. As soon as the child had outgrown the room, they would look for larger quarters. By then, Mary would probably be pregnant again, for they planned to have two children, separated by no more than four years. It seemed amazing to her now—the surety with which they had planned the future, charting each period of their early married life with the confidence given to those who believed life unfolded according to plan. So many years in the apartment on West End, during which time Philip would advance and attain a junior partnership . . . so many years, beginning with one- and one-half children, in larger quarters, Mary now engaged successfully in free-lance writing so she would miss the publishing job she had given up . . . the two children—boy and girl they hoped, but if they were given two of the same sex what did it really matter? The two children would be equally fortunate, because Philip and Mary were resolved not to make the blunders their own parents had so unwittingly perpetrated.
Mary would never become a caricature of motherhood, as Angela had often seemed to be, and she would also avoid the bland, disconnected, meaningless kindness of her father, the stiflingly overprotective manner of Alice Schiller, her mother-in-law. Philip would realize that the caustic pessimism informing nearly all of Warren Schiller’s views created burdensome atmosphere for a child, and he would take care to be a very different sort of father. Mary had sometimes thought of Gran as the only possible model upon which to draft the behavior of her impending motherhood, but Gran without the peculiarities. The fact that Mary Doherty, stripped of the eccentricities that had so baffled and intrigued her grandchildren, would not be the same person, had seemed of small importance. Now the little room had become a study for Mary. Philip had advanced in his career, according to plan and beyond, and Mary had become a writer of sorts, but they had never needed to move from the West End Avenue apartment because the children had not been born. Ten years ago, she had miscarried their first, and only, child in the fourth month of her pregnancy. Her doctor told her it was unusual to sustain a miscarriage in the fourth month. She had navigated the more perilous three without a hint of morning sickness or discomfort, only to lose the baby with appalling ease just when it should have been settling in safely under her heart. It had happened in the ladies room of the publishing company, while two editors discussed foreign sales over the wash basins. There had been no pain to speak of, only a vague ache and then the terror of seeing blood where none should be; she had had an irrational desire to return to her office and pretend she had never left, as if her trip to the ladies room had prompted the calamity. She had gone straight home and called her doctor, believing that whatever was happening to her could be stopped, but the small drama was already over. “There should have been more,” she said in her confusion, “It shouldn’t have been so easy.” However easy it had been to lose her child; the reverse was not true; she had never become pregnant again. Numerous tests failed to find a reason—there was no malformation of the mysterious womb, no sluggishness on the part of Philip’s sperm, nothing to prevent them from becoming parents. And yet it had not happened.
Sitting in the small room on Christmas Eve, Philip asleep in their bed, believing she was beside him, Mary permitted herself to think of the children she had never had, testing for pain. There was no pain, only a slight feeling of regret, as if the whole subject had been a minor one; yet she knew that at one time the thought of bearing children had consumed her. Perhaps, in the latter half of the twentieth century, women had lost the ability to breed at will—giving so much thought to the process, charting the future of their unborn so thoroughly—possibly there was arrogance at work here which was punished now and then when nature refused to cooperate. There was something humiliating in failing to do what dumb animals could achieve without thought or plan but try as she might to heighten her sense of loss to an exalted pain it would not come. “I am shallow,” she told herself. “Unfeeling. Incapable of great emotion.” She did not believe it, of course, but something in the very thick silence of the sleeping building seemed to require judgements. She had not left her husband’s side on the night before Christmas to ponder over the pasta maker she would open tomorrow or check the place settings for Christmas dinner with Philip’s sister and brother-in-law and their two children. She wished it was her own sister who would be coming, but Dee was skiing in Aspen. In the top drawer of her desk was a snapshot Dee had sent a few months ago. Mary extracted it and studied the familiar face with a feeling of relief. Here was Dorothea Flynn, thirty-four years of age now, an associate professor of history at the Midwestern American university where she had earned her doctorate. Dr. Flynn was wearing Jeans and a down vest; her unruly hair was pulled into two thick clumps and she stood, legs planted firmly apart, in a bank of snow. Beside her was a large brown dog. The dog’s name was Crotius. Mary knew She could never look at a picture of her sister without feeling she was looking at herself, even though they were very nearly opposites. In the grab-bag of the gene pool, Dee had snagged the luminous blue eyes of Mary Doherty, while Mary had inherited the dark furtive eyes of their father. Dee’s bright hair was coarse and curling, ginger-colored—the hair of Angela in its natural state, before the hairdressers tamed and lightened it to achieve the approved coiffure. Mary’s was almost black, and as straight as an Indian’s. Dee’s body was a legacy from their father—she was short and slender, yet the bones at wrist and ankle were wide and powerful, as if designed for action. Mary, taller, fuller, had come away with her mother’s small bones and the superior height attributed to the Doherty side, though Gran had barely cleared five feet. Dee was ruddy and tanned easily; Mary’s skin was so fair strangers often asked her if she felt quite well. The only physical characteristic they seemed to share was their small, lobe-less ears, ears Gran had pronounced the peerless proof of aristocratic blood. Dee’s were pierced, Mary’s were not. She had always been afraid of pain. Even though Dee and Stella and countless others had assured her ear-piercing was not painful, she could never bring herself to submit to it.
In the last month of the summer before Mary left for Barnard, Dee, fifteen, had proposed a sort of game. Each would write, on a separate slip of paper, the physical trait she most envied in her sister. “Curly hair,” Mary had written, torn between Dee’s hair and the bright color of her eyes. When Dee handed over her slip, it contained a single word: Bazooms! Looking at the likeness of her sister, Mary was comforted. She was capable of love, certainly. If one of her planned-for children had come to grief, her own grief would have been immense and in-consolable, but you could not miss what you never had. She imagined the mother of Mary Flynn, pulled apart by sorrow in Belfast, and was almost glad she had no children of her own.
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