ADOPTION (short story)
Guest Post by David Bellin
Let me tell you about a man I’ll call Edward who stands concealed by a curtain at the corner of a window in his apartment. He’s watching the family on a neighboring terrace.
Such moments need starting points and there are many in Edward’s life. The most instructive one takes us back to fifth grade. Edward wrote a composition about urban sprawl in the South. It was based on a local newspaper article he didn’t fully grasp but the composition assignment was “Where Would I Like To Live?” and the artist’s rendering of garden apartments looked inviting.
The facts were from the newspaper but the words were all Edward’s.
The teacher liked the composition so much, she read it to the class after Edward sat, paralyzed, when she asked him to read it himself.
“Well, Edward, we’ve discovered one thing you can do,” the teacher said. “You can write.”
“No, he can’t,” came from Miranda behind him.
He had once asked Miranda to be his pretend sister. She screamed unprintable things in response. Edward had thought she was his one friend in the class.
“He stole it from a newspaper,” she said
“Is that true, Edward?” the teacher asked.
Edward shook his head No, the words of explanation lodged in his throat.
“Well, then, let’s move on,” said the teacher.
On the bus going home, someone in the front yelled, “Well Edward, we’ve discovered one thing you can do.” A voice from the rear answered, “You can cheat,” which grew to a raucous chant as the rest of the bus joined in. It carried them half-way to Edward’s stop. When it abated, Miranda leaned over him to stage whisper, “Edward is a lying little worm.” That grew into a chorus that lasted the rest of the ride. Along the way, the hidden pokes and pinches came at Edward from all sides, only harder than usual today, and steadier.
Edward cut out the newspaper article. He pasted it on poster board side by side with his composition. He brought it to school the next day. The teacher said, “Thank you,” and went on with the day’s lessons
Long years after the composition was shredded and burned, Edward moved into a garden apartment. He was living in urban sprawl now and he liked it, liked having traded in a big city for a small city where you could still be just a face in the crowd. The crowd weighed less, though, and the streets were quieter. Low rise buildings displayed lawns below and unobstructed sky above. Apartment windows were wider and, in the cleaner air, the details they revealed were sharper. If you were Edward, you were happy to discover all this.
You were happy to discover terraces as well, a feature of the more expensive apartments in Edward’s building complex, a horseshoe-shaped affair that found Edward on the second floor at the curve of the horseshoe. That placed his windows to the side of a higher priced apartment and its terrace. There were no terraces on the ground floor and the third floor terrace belonged to an elderly couple who sat without sound or motion. When the family was out on the neighboring terrace, there were no other voices to interfere. He had never had such a vantage point.
Edward was now grateful to the officials responsible for his move. It was so hard to bond with a family in the rabbit warrens of the city. It could take months. Here, it took a few days, starting with the sight of a doll left in a chair on the terrace. Edward waited. It took an hour and then a little girl, about eight years old, came out to claim the doll. A good start.
The next day revealed father, mother and little brother. All Edward needed after that was a carefully tuned ear to conversations on the terrace, a peek at the names on the mailboxes downstairs, a quick search through the business pages of the phone book, and he was settled in. No family ever made it easier to join, a good omen.
The little girl — her name was Gloria — captivated Edward quickly. Brown ringlets, harlequin spectacles, a pensive air and a habit of arguing with herself were endearing enough, but the bug rescue sealed it for him. She appeared on the terrace one afternoon with something carefully enclosed in one hand. At the rail, she took a mighty breath that puffed out her cheeks like a balloon, opened her hand and blew away a ladybug, calling, “Now stay out here. In the house, you could get squished.” She shook her head like an anxious mother.
Minus the words and the headshake, Edward did the same thing with any friendly insect that wandered inside. I realize these deliverances are everyday events — I’ve gently evicted many a cricket myself — but this is Edward we’re talking about. By now you probably understand how little mercy he had seen in his life. He made a V for Victory sign at Gloria’s back as she went inside. Something essential now linked them together.
Incidentally, please reject any unpleasant suspicions about Edward’s feelings. He had no perverted appetites for children. His affection for Gloria was that of a favorite uncle, which is how he saw himself, having aged beyond the brother and cousin stages of previous families. Looking in a mirror, Edward could be realistic.
He took this family role seriously, trying to keep himself close, in his way, to Rob, Gloria’s dad; Pamela, her mom, and Mikey, her little brother, nine months old. Fond looks were all he could manage in that case since baby talk was a blank page in Edward’s memory.
Another discovery for Edward was the school bus. It began its route on the curved street below, a stroke of luck that found him at the window every morning, waiting with Gloria. He filled the time with little waves and smiles, while inspecting the kids around her. They were talking, jostling, laughing, jumping, without a visible bully among them. Not one. When Gloria boarded the bus, he was confident she would continue chattering happily all the way to school. For Edward, could there be a better start to the day?
Walks by the school playground were another way he connected. He could always spot Gloria in the recess crowd. He used to stop and quietly waggle a few fingers at her. Our secret, he would tell himself. He gave that up following an incident with a sheriff’s deputy. The little computers they keep in patrol cars these days turned out to be a blessing. The deputy found out in a moment that Edward didn’t have so much as a jay-walking ticket. Still, he just kept moving after that, ending up at a nearby Chinese restaurant. “Very good menu,” he told the hostess each day. “No place like this in my neighborhood.”
Connecting with Rob was more difficult. Gloria went to school and she spared ladybugs, mutual experiences that made her the natural channel to the family. Rob was a lawyer. The phone book had revealed he handled things like wills and real estate and business contracts, matters that Edward grasped only in the vague way most of us do.
Rob’s office was in a building downtown where people were always milling about. Nobody noticed or cared if Edward lingered outside with the smokers. He would hold an unlit cigarette in his hand like a hall pass, picturing Rob in his office with a young couple. They were about to buy their first home and were a little jittery about the new responsibilities. Rob explained deeds and mortgages and such so carefully, they relaxed and let slip a little secret: a baby was on the way. Rob congratulated them and turned the photos on his desk so they could see his own family. It was a satisfying scene, every time.
He worked up the courage to walk past the office itself one day. Rob usually left for lunch at 12:30, and Edward would nod at him, then add a little personal smile. Rob was always talking to a client, or one of the other lawyers, so he didn’t respond, which was alright with Edward. He’d done his part.
When he saw Rob leave this particular day, he entered the building carrying a large manila envelope. The few people still inside were heading for the exits, lunch obviously on their minds. He went up the stairs to an empty hallway and found Rob’s office. He studied the gold script: Robert Carlton, Attorney, as neat and refined as he expected.
He walked up and down the hallway several times, slowing to observe Rob’s office at each pass, until voices sounded in the stairwell. Prominently displaying the envelope, he went back down to the street and outside, looking straight ahead in a businesslike manner. A little thrill overtook him; he had done something daring, like a spy mission. What if he had been approached? Asked what was in the envelope? Well, the risk was worth it. The connection to Rob was that much stronger now.
He was thankful for the small supermarket in town. It gave him the chance to spend some time with Pamela. When she left the apartment house with Mikey in the stroller, he would get his shopping bag and leave, too. If they didn’t share the same streets — Edward took a different route, knowing from experience about demented old ladies peering through the blinds, ready to see a stalker in every passerby — if they didn’t share the same streets, they did share the same sunshine and the same aisles in the supermarket, just a few minutes apart.
He performed the smoker routine a few times outside the market where he could nod in her direction as she talked to her friends or fussed over Mikey and where he could take an inventory of what was in the cart. Jimmy Dean sausage was not his breakfast favorite, and he preferred Sprite to Pepsi, but he always adapted to the rest of the family’s tastes. It was no sacrifice, really.
The family went to church regularly, so Sunday morning for Edward meant dressing with extra care. Polished shoes, ironed white shirt, dark suit, a tastefully matched tie and he was ready. He let them know with a little salute as they left. He had kept his Bible for Young Readers all these years, pages still crisp. He held it on his lap and closed his eyes, bringing back the music and the sermons, words not mattering, riding the minister’s voice like a roller coaster, just as in childhood. He shared a private smile with everybody when they returned, certain they had all done the same thing.
The family prayed a lot, too. On the terrace every twilight, while Mikey slept in a playpen, Rob and Pamela and Gloria joined hands and bowed their heads, taking turns. Edward bowed his head, too, and played the Father of God game. He praised Him for those things that deserved praise while pointing out the areas where correction was needed in a calm and straight-forward manner.
And now it’s time to take a deep breath. The troublesome part is here. Well, more than just troublesome. I’ve been painting the good days, the days when every member of the family was wonderfully in place for Edward, truly the most peaceful days he had known since his mom died. Disrupting them is hard.
For the last five days, he’s been at the window almost every minute trying to keep a close watch on Marilyn. She arrived Monday in a clattering yellow Jeep Wrangler. He heard enough conversation to learn her name, to learn that she’s Pamela’s cousin, that she’s a prodigy — high school at twelve, college degrees at eighteen — and now she’s writing a PHD thesis that will keep her in the guest room for several months.
The simple family structure was overturned. To his credit, Edward tried: he told himself over and over, This is not directed at me. Not again. And in fact, it was different from previous assaults, where prying neighbors or bad-tempered family members were the invaders.
So why didn’t she spend the whole day inside writing? A thesis takes a long time; he had heard her complain about it herself. But now when the bus returned, instead of Pamela waiting, there was Marilyn, in her faded jeans, oversize man’s shirt, scuffed sneakers, those little steel-rimmed glasses – what an amateurish touch, he said to himself – that endless smile, the whole university girl facade.
They sat on the terrace sharing Gloria’s after-school milk and cookies and then they played on the lawn, batting a badminton bird or a croquet ball. Sometimes, they took little Mikey for a walk in his stroller. That moved them out of sight for a while. He didn’t know which was more frustrating, watching them or being unable to watch them. When they returned, they went back to the terrace to read books and play games, whooping and laughing, or at times sitting with heads together, whispering like class mates. Marilyn never glanced Edward’s way but once when they played Go Fish, he saw her shoulders shake as she shifted her chair in front of Gloria, blocking her from any outside view. It wasn’t laughter, he insisted. It wasn’t deliberate. She hadn’t seen him, didn’t know he was around.
After prayer that night, Marilyn and Rob sat talking on the terrace while Pamela took the kids inside. Marilyn had a writing tablet in her lap, jotting words down now and then by the terrace lamp. Edward supposed she was claiming her PHD had something to do with the law and she needed Rob as a source.
Except what part of her thesis called for the little trick with her hair? She wore it tied in a bun, but as Rob was talking and looking at her, she shook it free to stream down her back, like a scene from a bad movie romance. And the next moment, her eyes turned Edward’s way. With the light soft and the street dark, was she darting a glance of triumph that Rob would never notice? Edward replayed the sight again and again, peering inward to examine it. Yes, he finally concluded, it was possible. It was possible.
He discarded any suspicion that Pamela was trying to be a home wrecker. Rob and Pamela still looked at each other like teenagers with a crush. The marriage was invulnerable and Marilyn was smart enough to see that. She was also smart enough to know that even the most faithful of men can be won over by a little flirtation. Rob is a friend now, if he wasn’t before.
The next morning, Edward was at the window, ready for the cheerful school bus scene that began his day. When Gloria came out, carrying her books, he started to wave as usual, until he noticed Marilyn following her. They went to the parking area, not the bus stop. With a look at the clear sky, they wrestled the canvas top off the jeep. Gloria hollered, “You rule!” at the colorful open air vehicle.
Edward lay down with a warm compress, trying to rid his mind of the sight of Marilyn and Gloria driving off, the Jeep’s vanity license plate a final insult: SMARTERNU.
When Pamela and Mikey went into town later, he followed them all the way to the market, staying a mere half a block behind. Desperate, yes, he admitted it. If any demented old ladies were watching through their blinds, he just didn’t care. He had to have some contact, some reassurance of the family tie. He even walked down the aisles after Pamela, filling his cart with the same items she bought. If the cashier wondered why someone like him wanted Gerber’s mashed peas, it was her problem.
In the afternoon, he walked to school at dismissal hour. He didn’t keep moving this time. He stood there. The sheriff’s deputies had to be risked. If Marilyn was going to be there, he couldn’t simply leave the field, vanquished. At the least, he had to know about it.
Some mothers waiting to pick up their children shifted away to make room for him — very polite, he thought — and he was able to watch the entrance. “There she is,” he said happily, then whipped a tissue from his pocket, pretending a sneeze to hide his anger as the jeep pulled up. Library books tumbled around in the rear seat, no doubt Marilyn’s cover story for being in town. Just to make the scene a little more galling, all the kids began cheering when Gloria bounded into the jeep. She pumped her fists in the air in glee. Edward was too frustrated even to wave as the jeep rattled down the street.
That evening, Edward rallied a little. Time on the terrace had passed smoothly with everybody in a circle, praying, talking quietly and although Gloria and Marilyn were sitting close, chairs side by side, Marilyn’s attention had been focused on little Mikey, holding him as he slept, rocking him and playing with his hair. When everyone was inside and the lights turned on, he called his regular “Goodnight all” to the lowered bedroom shades.
Normally he would head for bed himself at that point but there was an odd shadow through the gauzy drapes of the living room. No, shadows. Two of them, distorted by the room lights, surreally blossoming and shrinking. A tall shadow, bending to and fro like a willow. A smaller one, lurching, trying to imitate the other. A dance lesson, the stuff he guessed they did at college recitals, almost hypnotic here. He watched the swallow-like swoops, the backward bends, the suddenly upraised arms, the slow twirls, first the tall shadow, then the small shadow, the small one growing steadily surer until the two finally flowed in unbroken harmony, swooping, bending, twirling, totally merged.
The shadows disappeared, the lights went out. The final image stayed, imprinted in Edward’s vision. He sat staring at the dark windows. Marilyn’s spell was complete; she had drawn Gloria to herself in a matter of days. Where would she take it from here? If she’s one of those who gain pleasure from dominating others, there’s only one direction for her to go: tighter and tighter control.
Didn’t Rob or Pamela see the potential problem? Probably not. Rob’s occupied with work, Pamela with Mikey, Marilyn’s a familiar and favorite cousin — the forest and the trees; it took somebody outside to observe it. And Gloria’s at such an impressionable age. Learning to be in thrall to someone could subtly warp her for life. The possibility was alarming and he saw no way to guard against it.
He was still staring when the sun came up, the lights went on, and Gloria and Marilyn went off again in the jeep. He paced back and forth, unable to repel the image of the carnival-like ride, the noisy arrival at school. He stopped pacing, started to ponder something. School. Where there was a psychologist on call or a social worker trained to spot hidden symptoms. A phone call? No, talking made him nervous and people wanted simplicity and certainty on the phone. A letter then, to the principal. Edward could handle that discreetly. After all, one thing you can do, Edward, you can write.
His fifth draft seemed acceptable. He kept a neutral tone, framing everything in questions: what can the school do about stealthy emotional manipulation? Suppose it’s by a trusted relative? Is there regular screening of students? Are teachers alert to the signs? Are parents notified immediately? Edward pointed out that he was not trained, that this was a gray area where hard evidence was not easy to gather, so he was simply raising the issues. Satisfied with this diplomatic handling, he took it to the mail box.
The principal’s secretary scanned the letter, the forty-first piece of mail she had opened that morning. She stapled a Suspected Abuse form to it, sent it on to Child Protective Services and went on to the forty-second piece of mail
They forgave him. They even insisted on meeting him, over-riding objections that it was against procedure.
How could Edward explain the absurdity of it all? He was trying to protect them. Now he was the culprit. In the upside down world of Child Protective Services, the child was not harmed in any way. Her cousin’s actions were normal and affectionate. The family believed it.
The Services people brought the sheriff along. He asked if the family wanted to press charges: slander, harassment, voyeurism — he held a notebook open like a menu.
Edward looked at them for the first time. His eyes had caromed away before this, as if avoiding the mid-day sun.
“No charges,” said Rob.
“You’re certain? You, Miss?” The sheriff looked at Marilyn. “You were the subject of the accusation.”
“I’m certain,” she said. “We forgive him.” Edward wanted to scream. Did anyone think she meant that?
The sheriff himself looked doubtful.
“Something to understand about us,” Rob explained. “We believe it’s the duty of Christians to love and to forgive. People may scoff at us but we take that very seriously. I know you’re trying to protect us, to protect the community, but this man is no threat to anybody. Have you looked at his history? Is there any aggressive behavior, or even a hint of any aggressive behavior?”
“No,” the sheriff admitted. “He’s just a nuisance.”
“Each and every one of us is a nuisance, sheriff, each and every one of us, in one way or another.” Rob was laughing as he said it. And Rob was not laughing as he said it. Lawyers must learn how to do that, Edward decided, impressed.
The sheriff shrugged and said, “It’s your call, counselor.” He regarded Edward for a moment, calculating something. “Your call,” he repeated to Rob and closed the notebook.
Edward breathed again, watching him leave, thinking of “just a nuisance” and the deliberate way Rob had softened the sting for him. He tried to recall another time when somebody actually heard what was being said, considered it from the nuisance’s point of view —
Pamela was pushing something into his hands. “We want you to have this. We know the landlord is insisting you move away.”
A packet from the post office: note paper and stamped envelopes.
“We’d really like to hear from you,” Rob said.
Then Gloria herself spoke to Edward.
“Do you have a Bible? We can give you one.”
His voice was dry and cracked in his ears.
“I already have one”
“Then you must pray about things.”
“I don’t pray about things. I think about things.”
It came out harshly. He only intended to end this painful scene. The thought that he might have hurt Gloria now was unbearable.
“That’s really cool,” she said, meaning it. “You can think about praying.”
He took a bus into the next county and found a place. It was a twenty minute ride away. There were other houses close by and he made note of them out of habit, although without the close examination he normally made.
He came back and started packing, keeping away from the windows. Experience had taught him that. No tearful farewells. They took too much out of him.
Better to look ahead, not back.
Of course, he owed it to Rob to correspond as he asked.
And to Gloria to think about praying.
She had been so totally trusting. Dim memories of Sunday School came back, memories of praying as hard as he could that he would be ignored. This time, with a different purpose, prayer might have a better chance. He could buy one of those books of prayers for all occasions to get started.
He’d write to the family about it. As always, he could explain things best on paper. Rob and Pamela would write him letters in return and maybe even include notes from Gloria.
Would that annoy Marilyn? Probably. He rolled the satisfaction of that around in his mind and it lasted only a short while, eclipsed by the fact that, in time, Marilyn would finish the thesis, pack her bags and leave.
And, in time, after letters back and forth, an invitation might come — no, unthinkable — well, think about it anyway — a Christian family, aren’t they called on to reach out? — an invitation — Edward moved his fingers as if opening it, then a wispy image came of a Sunday afternoon grill on the terrace — he’d memorize the right things to say, like I can only stay a short while — even if he sat mute and listened they just might understand — only a twenty minute bus ride — another lemonade, Edward? — I have the suit and tie for church, should it ever go that far —
How long had the doorbell been chiming?
The sheriff was there, with a man he introduced as the county attorney.
“We’ve been doing some checking up,” the attorney said. He was quick and blunt, a man in charge of things. “Your previous addresses, your bank records, items like that. We want you across the state line, not just a short distance move the way you’ve been doing it. If you don’t agree, we’ll go to court, have you declared incompetent, attach the income from your mother’s insurance and find a supervised home for you to live in.”
The nearest state line was more than two hundred miles away. Two hundred.
“I figure you’ll agree,” put in the sheriff. “It’s the smarter choice. And something you should keep in mind: we’ll tell the law enforcement people wherever you go to drop in now and then, make sure you’re okay.”
He understood. A police visit will make the neighbors suspicious, watchful. No more new families, Edward.
A misty twilight came and Edward left all the lights off, even the inside hallway bulb he usually kept burning, so there would be no sign that he was home. The family was assembling for evening prayers. Little Mikey dozed in his playpen, one small hand reaching out, touching the face of Gloria’s doll. Yes, she would give him a favorite plaything, with a motherly caution to “take good care of her.” He smiled at Gloria, facing him on the terrace, a white flower barrette in her hair. He automatically checked Marilyn’s hair for a matching one. The hairpins that held the bun glinted. There was nothing else.
They moved close and prayers began. He recognized for the first time how important the serenity of this hour had become for him. Seeing Gloria off to school in the morning, prayer on the terrace in the evening — they bracketed the day like cupped hands.
The mist turned to a light rain, turning the air fresh and cool, not disturbing the bowed heads, the murmuring voices, the peace that Edward was savoring. He tried to push tomorrow from his thoughts.
When the others went inside, hurrying against the rain, Marilyn walked slowly to the railing. Wondering, Edward watched her turn her head from side to side, arching her neck, stretching it. Then she did the hair trick again. It flowed down her back and she began to dance. What in the world is she trying to prove? Those bends and swoops again, arms stretched up, slow twirls – for whose benefit? She couldn’t know he was there. He was well concealed and there was little light left. She wasn’t looking in his direction, anyway. She was looking up, breaking into different movements, crazy rag-doll jumping now, arms shaking, flopping, knees bent in, knees bent out, and she stopped, standing at the rail again, head way back, moving her face in the raindrops, tongue out now, catching them, grinning, just enough light left for Edward to see the silly smile…
She’s a kid.
Look at her.
How old can she be? Eighteen? Nineteen? A PHD candidate, yes, but one who drives a rattling yellow SMARTERNU jeep and catches raindrops. One who probably missed a lot of childhood being a prodigy. Still a schoolgirl at heart. With a malevolent side? Can you dance in the rain like a rag doll one minute and be a predator the next?
While Edward weighed this, Gloria came out to stand at the rail and imitate Marilyn until Pamela put her head out and yelled, “The two of you! You’re soaked! Get inside!” Hunching their shoulders, pantomiming guilty children, giggling, they tiptoed through the door.
Eventually, the lights went out and once again Edward sat watching the dark windows.
The first signs of daylight fell across him and he stirred. He had no memory of falling asleep. There was a dream, though, where Rob was making a speech in a stadium filled with terraces while the sheriff danced back and forth behind him.
His watch read five o’clock. Four hours until Rob arrived at the office. Enough time for Edward to practice what he would say. I won’t get nervous and hang up, he promised himself. I’ll make a list to be sure I don’t forget anything.
At nine, Edward reviewed his list and told himself Rob will listen patiently. He’ll tell me the country attorney can’t deport someone to another state. He’ll tell me I can’t be declared incompetent. He’ll ask if I pay the rent, file tax returns, balance my bank accounts. Yes, I do all of that. Rob will tell me I can move twenty minutes away if I choose and the sheriff can’t arrange to have me harassed. He’ll tell me he’ll represent me if they actually take the matter to court.
Maybe there will be some small talk to put me at ease; I’m sure lawyers do that.
The price of food.
He reached for the phone, drew back, reached again and began dialing.
Adoption copyright 2012 by David Bellin
David Bellin is a retired TV and advertising executive. He and his wife live in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Adoption is from a collection of short stories in progress. It’s the third story to appear in these pages, following The Wingback Chair in May and Endings in July.
Bellin is the author of two novels: Sherman’s Chaplain (“A gem of a book – compact, hard but utterly beautiful” – Reader Views; “Very enjoyable, enlightening, thought-provoking work of historical fiction” – Civil War News) and The Children’s War, a novel of Northern Ireland (“Contemporary fiction with something substantive to say” – Library Journal; “Arresting first novel…illuminates compassionate souls on both side of a terrible struggle” – Publisher’s Weekly)