What MaryAnne remembered most vividly about those last few minutes alone in the fortune teller's stall was the smell, a sickening mixture of cheap perfume, stale cigarettes, and a hint of something else; fried sausage and peppers, probably from the push-cart just outside the curtained door.
"One marriage. It won't last. Six kids. But you'll raise only two," Madame Frieda said as she drew the tip of her chipped fingernail across the crease in MaryAnne's palm. Then she dropped MaryAnne's hand.
"Sometimes I get it wrong," she said. "That'll be two bucks."
MaryAnne fished two crumpled bills out of her bag and smoothed them out before handing them over. She pushed back from the card table and stood up. She was glad the other girls were already on their way to the other end of the pier. Their futures were secure. They'd taken their turns on the sticky vinyl covered seat of the folding chair, had been anxious to get out of the stuffy room, back into the sunlight, away from the bleached blonde hag in her flimsy polyester dress.
"Go on ahead," MaryAnne had said, "I'll catch up."
There was no way she could have known then that twenty-five years later she would be lying on a birthing bed, cradling a wrinkled baby still coated with goo, or that the overwhelming feeling she would have wouldn't be wonder, or excitement, or even love. It would be relief. Because the count was finally complete.
"Well hello there beautiful girl," she would whisper into the tiny cauliflower ear, "Welcome to the end of the line."
This last year, as her belly and breasts swelled, her curls relaxed into waves, and her skin flushed and smoothed, MaryAnne started to pay attention again, to wonder if there really was such a thing. Was there a board somewhere, where every move was markered in, a giant flow chart orchestrating the fall off her bike when she was three, the fender bender when she was twenty-four? Had she unwittingly followed a premapped trail of hints and clues, of self-fulfilling prophecies? Why else would she find herself single, forty-one, pregnant again, just a few years before Brian would be grown up and on his own?
They'd been in the garden, she on her hands and knees, weeding a tangled mass of perennials; oregano gone wild, ribbon grass spread into the irises, dandelions she would have to pry out by their parsnippy roots. Across the lawn Brian struggled with a screwdriver, trying to fix the wobbly leg of an old Adirondack chair. Maybe she'd get him to slap a coat of paint on it too. She'd bribed him: a morning in the garden in return for an afternoon grinding the Jeep's gears around the high school parking lot. He'd grown so tall, still a little uncomfortable with his new height, a trace of his boy self still there when she looked for it. Soon even that would be gone.
"I need the drill," he called over to her.
She sat back and watched him walk to the garage. The baby in her belly did a flip, poking her with an elbow or was it a knee?
"Hey Mr. Fixit. Grab the white paint and a brush while you're in there."
He made a face at her that quickly dissolved into a grin. They both laughed. She never tired of his face, of the way his skin stretched over his strong bones, the sharp angle of his jaw, his eyes, dark, deep set. How quickly he'd turned into one of them.
Men. They sprayed their seed around but didn't actually grow anything. Maybe that's why they were so obsessed with hammers and nails, with ripping engines apart and putting them back together again. Women were the lucky ones, making things grow; things more complicated, more enigmatic than any Prince of Science could conjure up. She'd planted six but had weeded her garden down to two, one of each, Brian, now the same age she had been when the boardwalk seer first set her clock, and now, there was another one, a girl, who on that Saturday was still germinating inside. It was then that she looked up and saw the naked baby perched on a low hanging branch of the apple tree. A little girl, so fat and rosy; smiling, her head haloed by the fruit tree's brilliant green leaves. MaryAnne blinked and thought, 'That must be the first one."
She'd heard the stories, all those other girls, their lifetime of regrets, their guilt. MaryAnne had felt none of that. She'd coasted through as if she was watching someone else, a woman who looked like her but wasn't, reduced now in her imperfect memory to flickering images.
The first one had been slam-bam-thank-you-mam. She'd screwed some big Sigma Ki boy in the back bedroom of an apartment in the middle of a rollicking party in New York City the summer she turned nineteen. It was just before the start of her senior year in college. She did it that one time and never saw him again although she had thought to ask his name just before he shot her full of his strong swimmers.
"Bruce", he'd moaned.
A doctor in the suburbs drained her bank account of all the money she'd saved from her summer job selling overpriced outfits to other rich college girls. She'd dropped fifteen hundred dollars for an afternoon lying spread eagle on a banquet table in the doctor's basement. That was a lot of money in those days. She was blindfolded. The doctor took his time. He sang Lady of Spain and smelled of Old Spice aftershave. She was back in her continental novels class on Monday morning as if nothing had happened.
She got a useless degree, cut her hair short and spiky, took to wearing tight tops, bell bottoms and platform shoes, moved in with a guy she stared down in a bar, married him, gave up English Lit for copywriting.
The finest fabrics selected for their fluid drape represent the latest refinements in gentlemanly attire.
Enveloped in soft leather and listening to smooth sounds you wonder how a sports coupe this appealing can still have ample seating for four.
He faced down the law, the practice of it. By the time Brian came along she was ready. He was the child she wanted, the child she chose. When she found herself pregnant again, too soon, just a few months after Brian's birth, there was a clinic on Beacon Street, near where they were living in Boston, only a hundred and fifty bucks that time, no right-to-life nuts marching around in front of it yet. The counselor made her fill out forms, asked lots of questions, most them ending with, "Are you sure?"
After that, years, and nothing.
Then the marriage fell apart. It was only loosely patched together anyway, so it was easy for MaryAnne to go on alone, mother to Brian, friend to all, no ghosts haunting.
"What you lack is self control," her mother always warned her.
She was referring to MaryAnne's propensity to sit for hours, scribbling stories and poems when she was supposed to be doing her homework not to the fact that now as a grown woman, marching into middle age, she kept getting knocked up.
Bam, bam, just when she thought her clock had run down, two more. One with a man she thought she loved, another with one she knew from the start, she didn't. They took her by surprise. She should have known better than to trust the spermicidal sponge. No reason to do anything but what she did, until, bam again.
Maybe, just maybe, MaryAnne agonized as the numbers added up, there was a master plan. Maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe she was meant to make one more person, this one last one. And so she did.
"Lack of self control? You've got to be joking. Control is what you're all about," Brian's father said as he collapsed into the armchair she had had recovered several times since the end of their marriage, a sidewalk trash-day find when they first lived together. It had become his chair.
"You're a bitter man?" she said, smiling with a little laugh to make it sound like she was kidding, but he didn't hear it that way.
He was still good to look at, his long hair given up years ago, the aviator glasses replaced by tortoiseshell rims. He was as lean as he'd been the night she'd lured him away from his side of the bar on Charles Street. She couldn't say the same for herself as she lowered her bulk onto the sofa, her ankles swollen, her fingers so puffy she couldn't wear her rings. Brian had his build - thank goodness for that - the same big long strong bones, his coloring, the hair, almost black, those eyes, so dark the pupils and irises appeared to be one, the olive skin, tan at the first drop of sun. From her Brian got his fire; he was quick to anger, just as quick to forgive.
He'd gone gracefully, her husband, but the last few years he tended to linger when he brought Brian home. He'd settle into that chair as if he was trying it out again, feeling out what it would be like to still be there with them. There had been women over the years. MaryAnne met a couple of them. But no one that stuck around for the long run.
"Sure, keep my last name if you want to. It makes sense for the three of you to match," he'd said when she asked him if she could give the baby his last name, which she still used.
She'd thanked him and tried to say the right things; Brian is OK with it. The dad really isn't such a bad guy. He was always quite clear. It was just a casual fling. I'm the one who is to blame. My carelessness. It was when she launched into, maybe my mother was right, that he popped off at her about the control thing.
She caught herself pushing an unruly stack of magazines into a neater pile. When she stood up her belly threw her off balance and she stumbled into the table sending the magazines flying across the wood floor. He sank further into the overstuffed cushions of the armchair. His black and brown angularity looked out of place in the pastel washed out flowery print of the chair, like the uptight lawyer he was, making a home visit to a client, she thought and laughed. From the look on his face she could tell that he took her laugh as mocking him and to be honest she was.
She kicked the magazines out of the way and left the room. When she returned it looked as if he hadn't dared to move, still folded into the same position as when she left. She handed him a glass; a tall tumbler filled with ice water and hastily cut hunks of lemon.
Should I be surprised? she thought as she glanced behind him. She wasn't. The first of the babies was sitting on the back of his chair. Next to her sat a baby boy. They were holding hands. The girl had just the faintest hint of blonde peach fuzz on her head; the boy a thatch of thick dark hair and a heart-shaped strawberry mark on his right thigh. Brian had one on his back when he was born. MaryAnne couldn't help thinking, Too bad those always fade away. They sat, looking so sweet and so sad.
"I'm sorry." she said.
The babies were silent. Her ex was the one who replied, "It's about time."
"Don't expect me to be a built-in baby-sitter," Brian said the morning she finally told him why she was puking in the downstairs bathroom sink.
He was a good boy but her condition was too much for him, his middle-aged mother, unmarried, pregnant. He'd turned sullen, distant, as the months moved along. He seemed to speed up as MaryAnne slowed down, dashing in and out, always on the run to get somewhere or do something.
"I made tuna noodle casserole, your favorite."
She tried to tempt him, as if filling him up might weigh him down, might tie him to the chair. He bolted the macaroni and the chunks of tuna then speared the peas one by one, sucking them off his fork until they disappeared and all that was left on the plate was an oily smear. MaryAnne flipped a slab of chocolate cake onto another plate and handed it to him. He was impatient to get up, to go. He picked at it.
"Want something to drink with that?" she said, the milk filled tumbler already in hand.
Brian took it, sipped and said, "I told you all along the guy was a jerk. I knew he wouldn't stick around. One bump and bingo he's gone."
She fought the sudden urge to hug him like she used to when he was small, to call him her buddy boy again, to tell him that someday, when he was somebody's lover, somebody's husband, somebody's father, he would do it differently. What she would never tell him, what she could never let on, was that it wasn't really much of a disappointment. Once she'd gotten over the initial shock, she really didn't care. She could do it on her own. Truth be told, she preferred it that way. In fact, she'd preferred it that way all along, no one's opinion to ask but her own.
"When I was your age, some blowzy gypsy on Steel Pier in Atlantic City tried to tell me how I was going to live my life. You'll have a son born early, and a daughter born late. You'll raise them alone. That's what she told me. I didn't believe her."
She didn't tell him the rest, about the one before him, or the three in-between.
"So what do you think about that?" she asked.
He got up from the clutter of the half-eaten casserole, crumpled napkins, and cake speckled plates. A horn honked in the driveway, reminding her he'd be driving soon.
"Can I have a twenty? We're headed to the mall."
"I asked you a question."
He started to gather the dirty dishes, "So the old lady was right. So what?"
She wanted to say, What do you mean, so what? I've spent a lifetime with this sticky stream of words glued to the palm of my hand. Instead she reached for her pocketbook.
"Here," she said peeling apart two fresh twenties and handing him one, "Ten o'clock. I know you've only got another week before vacation starts but it's still a school night. Now indulge me. Give me a kiss before you get so tall I need a stepladder to reach you."
He let her kiss him, glancing out the window first to be sure the boys in the idling car couldn't see. Then he lifted his jacket off the hook and swiveled out the door. The screen slammed behind him like a gunshot.
Alone in the kitchen, she covered the casserole with plastic wrap, scraped the leftovers into the disposal and piled the plates and utensils in the sink. From the window she admired the garden; the poppies, red and peach with their pitch black centers, the purple lupine spikes, the creeping phlox so covered with white flowers she could barely see the leaves beneath them. She glanced up at the apple tree and was disappointed to find the baby's branch empty, but she could still see her sweet face, the curve of her cheek, her rosebud mouth. And the boy? She remembered him. He looked just like Brian did when he was a baby.
"So what?" Brian had said.
Maybe he was right. Maybe it didn't matter if the portent of the fortuneteller's words was true or not. She had inhaled them along with the odors of dime store perfume and the charlatan's leftover lunch, had used them to rationalize the messy life she'd led. Maybe there was a simpler truth buried under all those layers of talk designed to deceive, layer upon layer meant to costume the ordinary into something more elaborate than it actually was? Maybe luck played a bigger part? Or was it common sense? She'd made the decisions she had to make, and she was still sure they were the right ones. Or maybe it was fate; maybe it never mattered what she did or how she did it because, in the end, regardless of how many missteps she made, everything was meant to turn out all right anyway?
She reached for the sponge, squirted an orange stream of dishwashing liquid onto it, added a little warm water, and watched the bubbles form. One was especially large, a rainbow refracted in its surface and when she looked closely she could see the reflection of her face, and for a minute, in her own features she saw the faces of the other two, her lost babies; and there was a third, another girl with a face so pale MaryAnne could see through her skin to the blue tracery of her veins. When she reached out to touch their faces the bubble quivered and broke, and she felt a twinge followed by a rush of something warm between her legs. When she looked down she was surprised there was so little, such an insignificant puddle of amniotic fluid on the kitchen floor.
She drove herself to the hospital birthing center. So different from Brian's entry into the world when her ex got lost on the way and had to stop at a service station to ask directions while she sat timing her contractions in the front seat. Not that it mattered, Brian took his time.
This birth was quick. She barely had time to ask the midwife, "How long do you think it will be?" before she was hit with a short series of fierce contractions. "If it's going to be like this I'll take the drugs," she told the nurse through gritted teeth. Then one more cataclysmic jolt. The midwife shouted, "Push!" and MaryAnne pushed, fell back onto the bed and said, "Ahhhh. That's better," and the midwife said, "It should be. Say hello to your little girl." She held the baby up with both hands. The baby turned her head towards MaryAnne, opened her eyes, and smiled.
Brian walked into the room carrying a Coke and a bag of chips from the hospital cafeteria. He put them down and rushed to kitchy-Koo his new sister. MaryAnne handed her over. A couple of hours earlier he'd hung back until a wise nurse plucked the baby out of the crib and plopped her into his arms. That was all it took. He fell in love. They named her Daisy.
"Little Yoda," he said, and carefully readjusted her blanket until she looked like a fat caterpillar, peering out of its cocoon. A tuft of blonde hair shot out over the thick white cotton. When she wriggled Brian loosened the wrap.
"She has old eyes." MaryAnne said as she ripped open the bag of chips, "I think she's been here before."
"Hey, don't eat all of those."
He pushed the edge of the blanket away from Daisy's face.
"She's not exactly cute yet is she?"
"She's still kind of scrunched from being curled up inside for so long. Don't worry, buddy boy, you weren't so good looking either when you were fresh out the oven. Now look at you, Mr. Man."
Brian gingerly shifted Daisy to one arm. She yawned and her hand popped out of the blanket. He kissed it.
MaryAnne twisted the top off the Coke and handed it to him. He sipped at it and put it down. She poured some of the chips onto her hand and offered him some.
"No thanks, I'll wait. I don't want to get her dirty," he said brushing invisible specks of something off Daisy's forehead.
God, she loved him for that.
MaryAnne withdrew her outstretched palm and tipped the chips back into the bag. A few crumbs and traces of grease were left behind. She studied the pattern of intersecting lines. One of them curved, arcing unbroken from her wrist to the halfway point between her forefinger and thumb before disappearing into the back of her hand, such a long life to look forward to.
After Brian left she fed Daisy and nodded off with her still at her breast. When she awoke the old babies were all there, the four of them, sitting on the window sill. The two girls and the boy, and another boy; a big baby with flushed cheeks and bright blue eyes. She recognized his eyes. What a cherubic quartet, like Donatello's putti or Tiepolo's angels; they sat in a row with their pink toes dangling. Everything about them was peachy and soft. They were leaning on their hands, their little fingers splayed. They smiled at her this time and she smiled back. Daisy stretched and extended her arm. MaryAnne took it by the wrist and waved the tiny hand up and down.
"Your little sister," she said to the line-up on the sill.
One after the other, each of the babies waved back. MaryAnne smiled down at Daisy. When she looked up again, they were gone.
Outside the hospital window the sky had turned luminous; the day was slipping away. MaryAnne listened to Daisy's breathing, and watched the blue behind the trees turn black. When she began to fuss, MaryAnne lifted her onto her shoulder and patted her back. Did she need to be burped or changed? Maybe both. MaryAnne angled her legs out of the bed, stepped to the floor, and carried Daisy over to the changing table. Gently she put her down, unwrapped the blanket, and removed the tiny undershirt by pulling it first over one arm, then the other, then stretching the neck over the baby's head, taking care not to scratch her face. She peeled back the tapes to remove the diaper.
Isn't it amazing, she thought, how different they all are? The first girl was so spunky, the second so dainty, and the boys. Number one could have been Brian's twin. That was a relief. She'd never been sure. Maybe she should have tried harder with his father? Maybe if she'd given birth to him...?
And the other boy? No question who his father was - those eyes. It pained her to look into those eyes. He was the one she had loved, the one with whom she thought she was fated to share a life. She'd swallowed that disappointment without letting it choke her, although she could still feel the hard lump of it in her throat whenever she thought about him. That and her other disappointments were there, inside, in the pit of her stomach, in each held breath, but only for her to see, only for her to feel. Where else would she be expected to keep them? She was, after all, a mother.
MaryAnne bent down, pressed her ear to Daisy's fragile chest and listened. Her heartbeat was strong. Behind her she heard another sound. Or was it above? Or outside? Infant voices. Scolding. She lifted her head, reached into the Pampers box, raised the baby's bum, and slid the clean diaper underneath. The other babies cried out again, fainter this time. MaryAnne looked up at the window and was startled by her reflection. Her hair was an electric mess, her eyes bright pinpoints of light. She turned away from herself, stroked Daisy's silky stomach, and thought about Brian. He needed summer clothes; he'd outgrown all of his shorts and sneakers. They'd go to the mall next week and shop for him first. Then they'd buy baby clothes, piles of soft sleeper suits with pastel snaps down the front. MaryAnne finished diapering Daisy and settled her in the crib. She walked over to the window, and pulled her hair up on top of her head. She needed a haircut. Maybe she'd cut it all off. She let it drop. In the darkness, she could now make out only the edge of the silhouette of the trees against the sky. She should make a list. She needed more diapers and wipes, baby powder, baby shampoo, baby everything. Daisy's room was ready. A stroller was waiting in the garage. And Brian. It was time to sign him up for driver's ed. MaryAnne reached for the curtain cord. She paused briefly before she pulled. In that last glance at her reflection, if she had looked more closely, she would have seen bits and pieces of each of the old babies: the curve of a cheek, the soft peaks of an upper lip, the arc of an eyebrow, the spiral of a dark curl. They called out to her again then, her infant chorus. But she could no longer hear them, preoccupied as she was with attending to the needs of the living.