|Apr/May 2020 Fiction|
Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne
It was 1973. She was in her third year of college at St. Mary's, sequestered in an all girls' dorm, listening to the swish of the nuns' habits as they swept the halls. They went to class, prayed three times a day, ate sparingly, worked hard.
But weekends were a different story. Around half of the girls went home while the other half explored South Bend. The world opened like a blossom, a cacophony of noises and smells and tumult Lily Ann couldn't get enough of. No matter where Lily Ann looked, life was speeding by.
She had met the boy on a Saturday night that started innocently enough. An invitation to a Notre Dame frat house. A punch bowl sitting on a table. A stereo playing "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face." The name on his name tag had a "III" beside it. His handshake was determined, his smile warm. They danced until the music stopped, and when the music stopped, they ended up in his room.
Two weeks later Lily Ann didn't get her period. For the next two months, she ignored the queasiness and the can't-lift-your-head exhaustion. By the time she came home to Tampa for winter break, her waistbands were tight and her breasts rock hard. Her mother noticed right off.
"My God. What did you do?"
They were standing in the hallway. Lily Ann looked around. Her father and brothers were watching football in the den while her sisters were chattering in the kitchen. Somewhere someone shouted Touchdown! Then her mother—tight-lipped and taciturn, her eyes like two black stones—slapped Lily Ann on the face.
Instead of returning to school, Lily Ann was shipped off to a convent 300 miles away. The plan was simple. No one—not her friends or her siblings or her classmates—would ever know the truth. According to the script, she was studying abroad. Then afterwards, after handing the baby over for adoption, she'd finish school at the local college. Her parents would never let her out of their sight again.
It never occurred to Lily Ann to disobey. And even though terminating a pregnancy was no longer illegal, no one she knew ever had an abortion. Preserving life felt like the right thing to do, the only thing to do.
Months passed. And as her stomach grew and Lily Ann felt the baby kicking and squirming, the thought of giving the child away tormented her. She'd walk the concrete halls with other pregnant girls, fantasizing about a nursery wallpapered in yellow, dreaming at night about birthday parties with little cone hats and balloons. She kept on telling herself that there was time, that she could change her mind, that she could walk away with the baby cradled in arms. But she was terrified of raising a child alone.
In desperation, she found a pay phone and called the fraternity house. It was shockingly easy to reach him.
"Walter, is this Walter Wickham III?"
There was noise in the background. Guys laughing. A radio blaring Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
"This is Lily Ann Donnelly. We met at your frat house in October. Brown hair. White Dress. Remember me?"
She pictured a slit of a smile, his carefully mooned fingernails clutching the receiver, brimming with the sort of confidence good breeding and a trust fund often provide. "Sure, Sugar," he replied. "Sure, I remember you."
Was her blouse moving? Lily Ann looked down. Was her heart bursting out of her chest?
"I'm pregnant, Walter. It's yours, I know it's yours because there's been no one else."
Suddenly his voice dropped an octave. He sounded professional, serious, like the successful lawyer he was bound to be in 20 years. "You have no proof. And believe me. No one would take your word over mine."
All Lily Ann could do was sob. She envisioned his perfect part, the white line of his scalp, running those fingers nervously through his thick wavy hair. When he spoke again, it was more like a growl.
"Do you need money to end it? I mean how far are you along?"
Jesus, thought Lily Ann. Can't he do the math? "I'm due in a month, Walter." She was practically pleading now, the desperation stuck in her throat. "I want to keep the baby. I don't want to give it away. I want to keep it."
She felt like she was at a job interview for a job she neither wanted nor was particularly qualified for. Should she send a transcript? A resume? Her head buzzed with words in her defense. She was pretty. An A student. Captain of the volleyball team two years running for Christ's sake! But all she could manage was a torrent of tears.
"Good luck to you, Martha Ann," said Walter. "I'm sure you'll do just fine." Then Lily Ann heard a click.
Three weeks later, all of the assumptions Lily Ann made about childbirth were proven wrong. Labor was more painful than she ever imagined. A special area of a Catholic hospital had been set aside for their deliveries and births. Lily Ann suffered through 12 hours of contractions while nuns scurried from room to room. She never felt so alone. She kept glancing at the door expecting to see her parents' faces, astonished that they would abandon her even now. A kind-hearted nurse let her hold the baby. Then they whisked her little girl away.
How she ached for that child! They gave her shots and wrapped her breasts to keep the milk from flowing. They dropped her into warm baths to heal her wounds. But losing the baby was like losing a limb. The phantom pain lingered. If only she had been braver! Surer! Tougher! Instead her courage failed her just when she needed it most.
They were in the Mother Superior's office. The door was closed, but still Lily Ann could hear the sounds of children playing across the street. The woman was old enough to have had this conversation many times before. The sleeves of her black habit swept her desk while the pen in her hand tapped the paperwork.
"The child's birth certificate needs to be signed," said the Mother Superior."
As usual, Lily Ann complied. But then she noticed that the line for the father's signature was blank. This was an oversight, Lily Ann assumed, that would promptly be corrected.
"I can tell you his name," said Lily Ann. "Don't you want his name?"
Instead of replying, the Mother Superior ignored her. Then she glanced at the ceiling and muttered under her breath. "The Lord works in mysterious ways. It's not our place to question why or where."
"I don't understand," said Lily Ann. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying close the door behind you, child. Then send the next girl in."
When she first heard her husband's voice, Lily Ann ignored it. Instead she went about setting the table in her customary way. Clockwise—starting from Karl's chair then working her way around.
Cloth napkins. A cornucopia centerpiece. A crystal pitcher. Their Thanksgiving meal was going to be smaller than usual, but old habits die hard. It would be just their daughter Tina, her husband Harold, and their kids this year. She brushed her hands on her apron and sighed.
Lily Ann was used to the quiet of her house. After raising four children, she savored her time alone. Sure she kept herself occupied—volunteering at the shelter, cleaning her closets, experimenting with new recipes. Their two youngest—twins—were seniors at college. Even though Lily Ann missed them, she secretly hoped they'd find jobs outside of Florida. New York, perhaps. Wouldn't that be nice.
"Where'd you hide the scotch?" shouted Karl.
She walked into the family room and blinked. At the age of 63, Lily Ann's hearing often deceived her. Sometimes police sirens whooshed by absolutely unnoticed, their spinning red lights a sudden surprise. Karl was supposed to be at work. Why wasn't he at work?
"The liquor is in the liquor cabinet as always," said Lily Ann. "Look in the back. Behind the club soda. Tina's children are coming tomorrow, so I hid a few things."
Even though they'd been married for nearly 40 years, Lily Ann still couldn't get used to Karl's thunderstorm of a temper. One minute he was all bright and sunny, and then next minute lightning bolts would pierce the skies. Sometimes it was the most ordinary incidents. A sports upset. A cross-eyed stare. A waiter spilling his soup. But this was different. One glance at Karl's face, and she knew things were bad. She imagined black clouds billowing. A crack of electricity shaking the roof.
"They let me go, Lily Ann." He plopped down on the couch with a tumbler in his hand. His tie was looped around his neck, his sleeves rolled up, his collar loose. "Three decades at the same job, and they let me go."
"What?" said Lily Ann. Then she plopped on the couch, too.
"They call it early retirement," said Karl. "I call it a fricking lack of gratitude."
"There must be other insurance companies," said Lily Ann. "You've gotten how many awards over the years? You're their best salesman, for crying out loud."
Karl cupped his head in his hands, and for the first time in her life, Lily Ann heard her husband cry. "This is knocking the wind out of me, Lily Ann. In a little over a month, I'll be cleaning out my desk."
Lily Ann sat by his side and there there'd him. Then she listened while he rattled the ice in his glass.
"Money's gonna be tight, Lily Ann."
As he spilled the details, one thing was clear: nothing would be sacred. Their car. Their savings. Their home.
Lily Ann glanced at her granddaughter then her daughter in quick succession. They were in the kitchen getting dinner ready while the men watched football. A turkey sat cross-legged on a plate. A ten-inch carving knife was hovering in Tina's hand.
Tina waved the knife. "Put the keys down, Erin. You're grounded. Grounded for life."
The melodrama was always the same. Only the scene and setting changed. Lily Ann bit her lip while her daughter and granddaughter argued. Erin wasn't a bad kid if you discounted her looks. Pink hair. One metal stud stabbed an eyebrow. Another pierced her nose. Four more traveled up and down the side of her left ear. Why a 16-year-old would mutilate her body was beyond Lily Ann's comprehension. But each time her daughter Tina lowered the boom, another metal stud popped up days later. The child seemed nailed together.
"If you don't let me go, I'll take Uber," said Erin.
"You steal my credit card, too?" asked Tina.
"Then I'll ride my bike. Whatever."
Lily Ann watched as one door closed, then the screen door slammed behind it.
"It's that social media," said Tina. She stabbed the bird with the knife, hacking away at the legs. "The kids do all sorts of crazy stuff, then announce it to the world. It never occurs to them that things stick. That what you put up on the web stays on the web forever. There are some things you can't erase. You know what I mean? Once they're done, they're done."
Lily Ann felt her face blanch white. "I'm sure Erin's not capable of..."
"Last month I figured out her computer password," said Tina. "Her emails made my head spin. Did you know that blow jobs aren't sex anymore? It's more like a handshake. Like a present you give a friend."
Lily Ann closed her eyes. It seemed like yesterday that she was dragging Tina to the doctor and getting her birth control. She and her husband Harold had starting dating in tenth grade.
"She's just heading to her friend's house," said Lily Ann. "What's the harm?"
From the family room, they heard the sound of a lamp crashing, a child crying, Harold scolding. "You have four other kids who are creating havoc in my home," said Lily Ann. She slipped her apron on the wall hook and smoothed her hair. "Let's round them up and eat."
As usual, a meal that took five hours to prepare was over in 15 minutes. Tina's younger children—Jennifer, Julia, Jake, and Josh—were incapable of sitting in their chairs without throwing the food or hitting each other. Meanwhile Karl and Harold were itching to get back to the TV. And every time Lily Ann lifted her fork, the phone rang. After running to the kitchen, she'd hold out the receiver. Then breathlessly she'd try to include the others in the conversation.
Her son Karl Jr. in California called first. He was her chipper one. The one who liked life served simple. "Hiya, Mom. How are things on the other west coast?"
"Fine, fine," lied Lilly Ann. Then she braced herself for the next call.
"It's the twins in Michigan, everybody." In the background a TV was blaring while a sports announcer shouted over the din. Lily Ann pictured snowflakes falling, her boys trekking to campus in their hand-knit caps.
"Go Blue!" shouted Harold.
"Fucking Buckeyes," boomed Karl.
Through the decaf and the pumpkin pie, the phone didn't stop ringing. Both Lily Ann and Karl had large extended families all over the country. Her sister Susan. Her brother Paul. Karl's sisters Honey and Hope. The list was endless. But the next time she glanced at the phone an area code she wasn't familiar with showed up on the screen.
"Is this Lily Ann Donnelly?" said the woman.
"Not for 42 years," said Lily Ann.
"My name is Mary. Mary Ellis. And I believe I am your daughter."
Lily Ann's first reaction was shock. She told the woman to hold on while she changed phones. Then she ran upstairs to her bedroom. By the time she got to her end table and sat on the bed, her pulse was pounding. Lily Ann's parents had long passed. No one—not her husband, not her children, not one member of her family—knew about the child she gave up for adoption years ago. "I don't understand. How could you... how did you?"
The records were sealed, she had been told. No one would ever find out.
The woman had prepared a rehearsed speech. Not only could she name the location of the convent, but she had a copy of her birth certificate in her hand.
"Me and my daughter did some DNA testing. Plus there are extenuating circumstances. When there's extenuating circumstance, people tend to help."
"Extenuating circumstances?" said Lily Ann.
"I have breast cancer," said the woman. "First one breast, now the other. I'm starting chemotherapy again in a few weeks."
Lily Ann closed her eyes. She lost both her mother and her sister Claudia to the disease. All the women in her family had been tested. All except Mary Ellis.
"I thought maybe we could meet," said the woman. "I'm around three hours away in Valdosta."
The woman sounding achingly familiar. The timbre of her voice. The way she stretched her vowels.
"Of course, of course," said Lily Ann.
What else could she say? She felt blind-sided, tackled from all directions like those football players on TV. She looked outside her window and imagined a thousand faces peeking in, looking right through her.
Lily Ann watched Erin adjust the side and rearview mirrors. Then after clutching the steering wheel, her granddaughter laid one hand on two and the other on ten.
"Google Maps is telling me that the trip should take around two hours, Grandma. But we should see the signs to Disneyworld before that."
Meanwhile Lily Ann was positioning her bottom in the passenger seat. When she was done with the positioning, she tackled the seat belt. It took her three tries, pulling the strap out its full length then aiming the buckle for the latch. On her lap was the world's largest purse.
"There's been a change of venue, Sweetheart. We'll do Orlando on the way home. But right now I need to get to Valdosta."
"As in Georgia?" said Erin.
"Believe me. I wouldn't hijack you if there were any other way," said Lily Ann. Then she pointed to her eyes. "I got cataracts. Need to trade in my chassis 'cause they keep repossessing the parts." After digging around her purse for a few seconds, she extracted a map, a pack of Kleenex, and two sticks of chewing gum. "My car practically drives itself to the market. Don't tell your grandfather, but I'm nearly blind."
The keys were in Erin's hand hovering near the ignition. "I've only had my license a few months, Grandma. Mom would have a cow if she knew I was driving to Georgia."
"Your mother would have a herd of cows if she knew the truth," said Lily Ann. They she glanced at her watch. "Let's hit the road. It's eight o'clock already and we're expected by noon."
The ride was nearly all interstate highway, the dull flat terrain interrupted only by billboards. In the distance, Australian pines and cabbage palms soon gave way to oaks and dogwood trees. It only took ten minutes for Lily Ann to tell her story. The details were as clear in her mind as they were over 40 years earlier. A punch bowl. A tussle in a frat house. A boy who couldn't remember her name.
"Geesh, Grandma. No one knows but me? Not Grandpa, not Mom, not Uncle Paul or Aunt Sue?"
Lily Ann dried her eyes with the tissues. "I was so ashamed. Ashamed for the longest time."
They drove without talking, the silence swallowing them, the car clunk clunk clunking over the seams. "You know Mom grounded me," said Erin. "How'd you ever convince her to let me go?"
"You were driving her crazy," said Lily Ann. "Two days of peace and quiet was as good an offer as any."
They pulled into the Pancake House in Valdosta five minutes before noon. Lilly Ann checked and re-checked herself in her compact mirror. Then she patted her hair into place and spit-shined her shoes. As they marched into the restaurant, she grabbed her granddaughter's hand. No matter how often she had fantasized about this moment, she dreaded it as well.
"She's bringing her daughter," said Lily Ann. "A girl about your age. She'll be wearing an Atlanta Braves hat."
Erin spotted them first. They were sitting in the booth in the corner. Outside the window, cars were racing by while pedestrians strolled on the sidewalk. A woman Lily Ann supposed was Mary Ellis was holding a menu. A brunette. Fortyish. The woman glanced up, laid the menu down on the table and gazed at them with her mouth open.
"Wow," Erin whispered. "That girl's like my cousin, right?"
Ten feet away, Lily Ann couldn't stand it anymore. She dropped her purse, ran to the table, and threw her arms around the teenager. Then she stooped down and gingerly embraced the woman beside her.
Mary Ellis flinched. "It hurts to be hugged," she said.
"I know," said Lily Ann as she patted her back. "I know."
"It really hurts," said Mary Ellis. "The biopsy. The stitches..."
Lily Ann's mind whirred. Of course. What was she thinking? Then she quietly positioned herself and Erin on the empty seat.
"I suppose introductions are in order," said Lily Ann. "This is Erin. My very capable chauffeur."
"And this is Heather," said Mary Ellis. "She's fixin' to go to college next year."
"That's so cool," said Erin. "Like what's your first choice?"
Lily Ann was too busy staring to listen. They both had hair as thick as horse manes, the teenager's pulled back in a ponytail, the older one's around three inches long. Mary Ellis' hair wasn't much longer than a man's. The resemblance to the boy in the frat house was startling.
Meanwhile Mary Ellis was unrolling another prepared speech. "Heather's at the top of her class. Took six AP classes and runs track. Y' all should see her in a meet. Runs circles around the other schools."
The trouble with getting old, thought Lily Ann, is that all conversations start sounding alike. Like God only created so many sentences in the world and after a while he just replayed them in one continuous loop.
"My, my, my," said Lily Ann.
While her granddaughter Erin was playing with her food—making figure eights with the catsup and peeling the crust off the chicken fingers—her other granddaughter seemed shell-shocked. Her hand never ventured far from her mouth. No matter how much Lily Ann questioned and prodded, she just answered yes, ma'am and no, ma'am as if she had lockjaw or strep throat or worse. Then suddenly Erin tilted her head up and slowly lowered a six-inch French fry. The fry bobbed in and out, missing and not missing. The four of them, including Heather, burst out giggling.
And then Lily Ann saw it. The poor girl had a mouthful of crooked teeth, teeth so crooked some of them were turned sideways in their sockets. Lily Ann's heart lurched.
She patted Mary Ellis' hand. "Tell me about the parents who adopted you. Were they kind? Did they give you a good home?"
Mary Ellis ran her fingers through her hair. "It used to be straighter, you know. Bone straight. But the treatment changed it." Then she took the salt and pepper shakers and started marching them across the table. Right. Left. Right. Left. She couldn't seem to keep her hands still. "My parents? Maybe you've seen them on TV. They're on talk shows. News shows. Even been to the governor's mansion once. They're the ones who adopted a dozen kids. Kids with all sorts of disabilities. C.P. Autism. A couple with Down syndrome. The ones who were normal took care of the others."
When she stopped talking, she put the shakers down, leaving a powdery trail across the table. "I figure," said Mary Ellis, "that love's like a pie. You only have so much, and the more you cut it up, the less you get. That's why I only have one kid." Then she looked at Lily Ann hard. "How many kids you got, Lily Ann?"
Lily Ann felt three pairs of eyes staring at her. She glanced out the window. A woman pushing a stroller looked her way and nodded. Opening her wallet, she grabbed a couple of 20s and signaled the waitress. Then she stood up. "What do you want, Mary Ellis? After all these years, why did you go to all that trouble to find me?"
Mary Ellis dug into her pocket, pulled out a sheaf of report cards, and fanned them on the table. "I got no money, no insurance, and no husband. So I come runnin'. Not for me but for my daughter. Heather deserves to go to college. It ain't fair if she don't go to college."
"Stand up, Erin," said Lily Ann. Then she grabbed her purse and threw back her shoulders. "If that's the kind of help you want, I can't give it, Mary Ellis."
"But Grandma," said Erin.
No one was more surprised than Lily Ann when she raised her voice. She felt a current passing from her head to her toes. Something white-hot and sizzling. "I said Stand up! Erin. Stand up now!"
Mary Ellis waved the papers, oblivious to the waitress at their side, ignoring the people gawking at the next table, deaf to the children laughing across the aisle. Her voice was high and shrill. "How about my father?" said Mary Ellis. "Where the hell is he?"
Lily Ann glanced around the room, then leaned across the table one last time. "I cared enough to give you life," she whispered. "That should count for something, shouldn't it?"
Three days later, Lily Ann had a game plan. She knocked on her daughter Tina's door at four o'clock sharp Monday afternoon.
"Enter at your own risk," said Tina.
Every surface of the kitchen was covered with colored construction paper. The four little ones were sitting at the table. There was glitter in Tina's hair.
"Advent calendars," said Tina. "We're counting down til Christmas."
A sticky-fingered child wrapped her arms around Lily Ann's waist.
"Can you color with us, Grandma?"
"Look Grandma, there's a hole where my tooth got lost."
"Jakie, hit me!"
Lily Ann blinked. For three nights she hadn't a wink of sleep. She had no idea if Erin was capable of keeping a secret and was terrified her daughter would find out the truth. But Tina seemed her usual self—harried and unhappy.
She gently unpeeled her granddaughter's fingers. "Is Erin home?"
"She's hiding in her bedroom," said Tina. "She knows I'll kill her if she comes out."
"Can I give you some advice?" said Lily Ann. "The problem is that she pushes and you pull." She glanced toward the doorway. The music emanating from Erin's bedroom was loud enough to rattle her teeth. "So it's a tug-of-war. Pushing. Pulling. Nobody stands still."
Tina picked up a pair of miniature plastic scissors. It would take years before her children managed a straight edge. "Mea culpa, Mother. We're not all as perfect as you are."
For a brief moment, the room spun. Lily Ann grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself. Then she walked slowly down the hallway and knocked on the Erin's door.
"It's me. Grandma," Lily Ann shouted. "We have to talk."
The room was surprisingly clean and tidy. A hammock filled with stuffed animals. A shelf of books. Posters on the walls of bug-eyed cats. Lily Ann sat herself down on the bed and cleared her throat.
"His name is Walter Wickham III," said Lily Ann.
Erin was at her desk, her Pre-Calculus text opened in front of her.
"I need your help," said Lily Ann. "I want to find out where he is, who he is."
Erin shifted toward her computer. Within seconds, she was pressing buttons. "This is just getting cooler and cooler, Grandma." Then she blew out a huge pink bubble and carefully sucked it back in.
Lily Ann stood over Erin's shoulder while she worked. Within minutes, they located a Walter Wickham in Pittsburgh. His father was a lawyer, and his father before him. His name was on the firm letterhead front and center.
"Does he have a family?" asked Lily Ann.
"Hold on," said Erin. "Let's see if he has a Facebook page." Then she turned to her grandmother. "You wouldn't believe the stupid stuff people put out there."
Soon they were immersed in the details of his life. The vacation home in Telluride. His daughter's wedding at The Ritz. His son's graduation from Harvard Law.
"Holy shit!" said Erin. "Heather's hit the lottery."
Lily Ann was speechless. She watched the screen as Erin scrolled from link to link. With her palm on her stomach, she swallowed hard, the tears running down her cheeks. Then she dug into her purse and extracted a piece of paper. "I need to ask you one last favor," said Lily Ann. "I need you to call Mary Ellis. To tell the two of them what we learned today."
Suddenly Erin's fingers stopped moving. "You're not going to tell Grandpa, are you?"
Lily Ann walked to the door and squeezed the knob. "You should change your password, by the way. Your mother's figured it out."
"You're not going to tell anyone, are you?"
Lily Ann sighed. "Your grandfather would leave me. Your mother would hate me. And no matter what I do, Mary Ellis will never forgive me." Then she opened the door and stuck her foot inside the hall. "But the Lord, I'm told, works in mysterious ways. So who knows? I'm not discounting maybe. I'm just discounting now."
Minutes later she stood on the sidewalk outside her car. The sun was setting, the sky a blur of reds and blues. Lily Ann blinked. Each day her vision was getting worse and worse. Street signs had lost their letters while trees had lost their leaves. The world was coated with a milky glass, and no matter how hard Lily Ann swiped the air, nothing in front of her was ever clean.
Then all at once she made a decision. Buried deep inside her purse was another phone number with another name. Lily Ann hated hospitals. Hospitals with their cold walls and sickly smells terrified her. But nine o'clock the following morning, she was going to call the eye doctor. It was time, she realized, to have surgery.
She watched and waited as the sun dipped behind the clouds. Branches rustled while a cool breeze brushed her face. In a few minutes, she'd be blanketed by darkness, then one by one the moon and stars would magically appear. Oh, to see the stars! Wouldn't that be nice.