Story 13, 1993 When Maureen Donnegan first moved into the apartment in Brooklyn, her neighbors used to stare at her window, nearly level with the brownstone’s stoop. Even then, it was no more than a shabby frame for the assortment of saints that lined the shelves pushed up against the pane. Their faded robes are cracked now, separated from countless days of sun and rain only by the loose, filmy glass and curtains too flimsy to do their job.
Maureen can see some of the neighbors standing on the sidewalk, but she’s sure they can’t see her sitting at the kitchen table, not far from the open window, listening to what they’re telling the man who was just inside, banging on her door like a federal marshal.
He’s Charlene’s father, Mr. Robinson. He spoke his name like a threat, pounded it into the door, said he was looking for his daughter, shouting finally when he got no response. Maureen didn’t want to speak to him, or even see his face. She knew he wouldn’t look like a monster. He’d look like a tired, hard-working black man, and nothing about him would show that he has no use for the girl, no love.
“He never talks to me,” Charlene told her early on, right after the pregnancy test. They’d finished eating dinner, the girl’s first taste of corned beef, and she was at the sink, washing the dishes. “He knows I’m around, but he never looks at me.”
“What do you mean never?”
“He’s tired. And sometimes he works nights.” Charlene gave a weak shrug, a movement that seemed to discount any worth she had. “I ain’t much to see anyway.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Maureen scolded. She wanted to tell her she was beautiful, because she was. Not just the dimples and the flawless skin, but the grace she had, the discipline of her gestures, the way she received the world as if its indifference were no danger to her. But such talk was not Maureen’s way. “What about your mother? Can you talk with her about what to do?”
She shook her head. “She’s pretty angry most of the time.”
Maureen wanted to hold her then. No one should feel so insignificant, not to your mother and father. They’re supposed to protect you when the monsters come. Maureen was never able to make her own children feel safe from their father, no matter how often she stood in his way. The pain of that never left her.
The voices drift in from the street. “We don’t see much of her,” someone tells Mr. Robinson. Maureen recognizes the nasal voice. It’s Mrs. Bogavitch, from 3C. “She used to have a dog,” she says, “a tiny thing. Always growling through those pointy teeth. Even chewed on the living room window shade when she left it alone in the apartment.” She knits her crooked fingers together, looking pleased with herself.
“It was a nasty creature,” someone else agrees, and Maureen knows most of them think she is too. She isn’t. She has merely had her fill of people. Somewhere back in her late fifties—almost twenty years ago—she finally gave in to the long-held suspicion that people by and large are a greedy, reprehensible lot who lie for sport and mostly smell bad. Certainly her husband and at least two of her sisters proved the rule, and she’s no longer willing to pretend otherwise. She’s always civil, but she refuses to listen to people brag about what they do or what they own or endure tales of thankless children or cheating husbands. She keeps her greetings to the point and never lets discussions of health or the weather get taken too far. She’ll talk, but only about things that matter. On Thursdays, she nods to Mr. Norman, the superintendent of the building, if he spots her watering the long, spindly philodendron that grows unevenly from St. Jude’s backside. But otherwise she keeps to herself.
And she prays. She prays mostly in the kitchen, where the saints are. She doesn’t address her prayers to them, although she can recite from memory all of the petitions for their intercession; she simply likes their company. She admires the good sense behind the notion that if someone cuts your head off or boils you in oil, they aren’t necessarily getting the better of you.
She hears her name spoken again, so she gets up from the table, steps close enough to the window to see them better. Mrs. Bogavitch tells Mr. Robinson that she saw Maureen with his daughter on the avenue yesterday morning, before the girl went missing. “Charlene was pulling her laundry cart for her, the way she does sometimes.”
“She must belong to St. Frances Parish,” Mr. Robinson says. He sounds suspicious, as if the other neighbors must be holding something back, protecting her. “Maybe I could find her after Mass. Which one does she go to?”
“Doesn’t go to Mass,” Mr. Norman tells him. “Doesn’t want anything to do with the Church.” Norman is a cannon of a man, with muscled forearms and work boots like weapons.
“Are you kidding me? It looks like a communion-of-saints theme park in there.”
“She watches the Mass on TV,” says Mr. Norman, sounding icy, as if the questions are irritating him.
“Every morning,” says Mrs. Feldman, the talkative woman who lives across the hall from Maureen, the one who makes potato kugel every Sunday, like a ritual, and leaves the dirty pan on the stoop for the birds to pick at. “Never misses.”
“You sure she’s not in there?”
“You knocked for five minutes, for Chrissake,” says Mr. Norman.
“That don’t mean she’s not in there,” says Mrs. Bogavitch, pulling a sleeve up like she’s ready for a fight.
“Well, would you please tell her I was here?” Robinson says, handing the super a folded paper. “Here’s my phone number. Maybe she’ll help me.”
Mr. Norman holds the paper loosely by a corner, clearly not convinced he should take it. He wouldn’t want to get involved. Maureen is sure of that. She’s a good tenant, always puts the lids back on the garbage barrels, tips him at Christmas. Mr. Norman nods to the man as if he’ll get back to him. The others say nothing. They watch him walk to his car, heads turning in unison. This stranger won’t really be gone unless they see him do it, the same way they watch Maureen’s every move, no matter how she avoids them. “Please let me know if you hear anything,” he calls from across the roof of the car. “My wife is very worried.”
Maureen shakes her head. Such worry hardly fits what Mrs. Feldman has told her about Charlene’s family. The girl was in classes with her granddaughter last May, at the end of junior year, and in trouble much of the time. Never had homework done, cut class repeatedly. Calls home to the parents only made things worse. She’d come to school afterward bruised and sullen.
Mrs. Feldman holds her hand out to Mr. Norman for the paper. “Here, I’ll take it in to her.”
Maureen sits down at the table again. The September light has a hard time getting past the plants and statuary on the shelves. She has not turned on her lamp above the table as she normally does by this time of day. She’d be reading now, of course. It’s nearly five o’clock and the chores are done. But she’s having a good deal of trouble focusing her thoughts. Charlene said she’d call, but she hasn’t. She’s surely arrived by now, found the medical building. The girl promised she’d take a cab from the train station, but Maureen doesn’t trust her to do it. She won’t want to spend the money she gave her, not for that. The girl is convinced she can still walk for miles, even in her condition.
Charlene is remarkably strong. Maureen could see that from the start. She lifted huge bags of laundry with no trouble, even pulled a washing machine away from the wall to get at a broken hose. Of course, she didn’t know the girl was carrying a child then or she would have stopped her. Later, Charlene laughed when she scolded her, as if the objections Maureen had to what she ate or even to cursing or stealing from the vending machines were quaint little rules of etiquette from a distant time that Charlene had only heard about or seen on reruns.
Someone’s knocking on the door again—a soft, half-hearted try, unlike the earlier barbarity, probably Mrs. Feldman. Maureen considers ignoring it, then changes her mind, wondering what else might be in that note. She rises from the table and steps into the living room—a heavily doilied little parlor with a small TV set on a low chest of drawers. She undoes the bolt and opens the door as far as the chain lock will allow. Mrs. Feldman stands on the other side, fists resting on her hips, as if waiting for an explanation. Maureen says nothing.
“So. You’re looking well,” Mrs. Feldman tells her. This is her customary overture with Maureen, rarely effective.
“So I am.” She’s relieved that it’s Feldman, the least offensive of the bunch. The silence between them is uncomfortable but hardly enough to make Maureen invite her in.
“There was a man here looking for you,” Feldman says finally.
“Couldn’t have been for me. I’ve given them up.”
The joke takes Feldman off guard. Her chuckle, hesitant and uncertain, doesn’t come right away. “Can we talk for a little maybe?”
“Go ahead,” Maureen tells her. “Talk.”
“The hallway is not where people talk.” Feldman presses her lips together, and Maureen wonders what she’d really like to say.
Without a word, she closes the door to slide off the chain lock, then opens it again wider, a begrudging invitation that Feldman accepts without comment. The two women stand in the living room in silence, as if words would be a sign of weakness. Finally, Feldman reaches into the pocket of her long, loose sweater, removes the paper, unfolded now, and holds it out to Maureen, who sees that it bears only the number.
“I won’t be needing that,” Maureen tells her.
Mrs. Feldman raises her hand, arm out straight, holding the paper level with Maureen’s nose. “The man was upset. Very upset.”
“Was he, now?”
Mrs. Feldman lets her arm fall to her side. “Do you know where that girl is?”
“Can’t say that I do.” Maureen turns her back to her, decides a lampshade beside the corner chair needs adjusting, and goes to it. “Crooked old thing,” she mumbles.
“So you want to play word games?”
The woman’s inflection irritates Maureen. Why is it these people have to speak in questions, no matter how many years they’ve been here? She wants to ask her to leave, but fusses with the shade instead.
Feldman takes in a noisy breath. “You don’t hear me talking to you? You’re not going to answer me?”
Enough of this, Maureen decides, and lumbers toward the door. Her legs feel heavy today, and she curses the pain, the indignity, the extra seconds it takes to get to the door and open it. “I have no more to say about it.”
“This is a cruel thing you’re doing, a cruel thing.” Feldman wags a finger at her. “He’s the girl’s father. He has a right to know where she is.”
Maureen holds the door open, an irritated concierge. “Father is not the word I’d be using to describe that sorry excuse for a parent.”
“Sorry or not, it’s not for you to decide.”
“You’ll have to excuse me. I have things to attend to.” With a curt motion of her hand, she signals for her neighbor to leave.
Mrs. Feldman steps closer. Her neck has reddened and she retrieves a flowered hankie from her pocket to wipe her brow. “Think of how it would feel,” she says, planting herself in the doorway before Maureen can shut her out. “Think of how you’d feel if she was yours and you didn’t know where she was or what she was doing.”
Maureen already knows how that would feel. She lets go of the knob and Feldman steps away as the heavy door closes on its own. She glances at the couch, worried she’ll fall before she can reach it, because that’s how it feels not to know, like a mean and desperate weakness.
The first time Maureen saw Charlene working at the Laundromat was in early June and she wondered why she wasn’t in school, but she didn’t ask. The girl didn’t speak to her at all that day, only nodded when Maureen thanked her for picking up her quarters when she dropped her change purse. She read her newspaper, and Charlene folded clothes, swept the floor, put a long sweater on when her relief came at three o’clock, though the day had warmed. She went out the door, headed left, probably toward the Ridgefield section, Maureen figured, where mostly coloreds live.
She left the Laundromat that day wondering about the girl. She’d caught her lost in thought a few times, suspected she might have been crying at one point. The girl folded towels and sheets with a rhythmic motion that was soothing to watch. Her hands were dark and wide, the nails unpainted. Maureen thought of her mother’s hands, the freckled skin, the chipped nails. She took in laundry to help with the bills, but she was hardly content about it. At the ironing board, she’d keep up a running commentary on the dreadful owners of these tailored shirts and ruffled blouses. Cursed souls, she’d call them, whose pockmarked faces were a cross no one should be forced to bear. The ridicule made Maureen and her sisters laugh, but they knew instinctively that the mockery was meant to keep insult at bay, to make clear that Mary Monaghan was more than just the servant woman, their donkey.
The following week, laundry day came sooner than it should have. Maureen was having some trouble. After marketing that Tuesday, she’d barely gotten back to the apartment in time. She blamed it on too much morning tea, until Thursday, when it happened again, this time so unexpectedly that she didn’t make it inside in time. The girl was at the Laundromat again, sweeping, folding, wiping down the machines. Maureen was a little surprised when the girl greeted her. Soon after, when a woman with twins and a German shepherd put too much soap in a machine, the two exchanged a look.
Charlene stepped into the mess, unflappable, amid the spreading suds, and the sight reminded Maureen of Maggie, her second-oldest, how stoic she’d been as a girl.
“She does it every time,” Charlene told her when the suds maker cleared out. “I show her how much to put in, but she never thinks it’s enough.”
Maureen shook her head. “People like that should get jobs serving ice cream.”
This made the girl laugh, and she paused her mopping, stood up straight. “I’m Charlene.”
Maureen stepped closer, extending her hand. “I’m Maureen Donnegan.” The girl looked down at it, as if unsure what was wanted. “Pleased to meet you,” Maureen prompted.
Charlene wiped her hand on her jeans to remove the suds and reached out, grinning, as if the formality was comical.
The girl’s grip confirmed what Maureen already sensed. This was an honest young woman, a good soul.
She spent longer at the washing than she needed to that day. Something about this girl pulled at her, a stability, a rightness—yet a vulnerability that threatened both. She was more diligent than a teenager should be, too ready to fill the coin machine before it was empty, agree to fold a customer’s towels before seeing how many there were. Beyond their names, they shared few details about each other. Such incidentals rarely changed Maureen’s first impression of people anyway, even when she wanted them to. She added time to the dryer, though the clothes were long since done, sat down with her paper to wait.
The girl passed en route to fill one of the vending machines and asked what she was reading. “It’s the Sunday Times Book Review,” she told her, happy to put it aside. “I never read the books, only the reviews.”
Charlene said she thought that made sense. “I like to read, but I get restless,” she said. “Can’t stand sitting that long. TV gets to me that way too.”
“That’s a good thing. You’ll get more done in your life,” Maureen called after her. The girl had trouble being still, and that pleased her. “Reading books has taken up an awful lot of time in mine, and I can never remember any of them anyway.”
Charlene headed back in her direction. “Which review you reading? What book?”
“Psychology. Parents’ relationships with their grown-up children. The author thinks they can be the closest connections of all,” she said, chuckling.
The girl stopped at the dryer holding Maureen’s clothes and peered in. “Looks like they’re done.”
“Good. Thank you.” Maureen got to her feet to fetch her cart from beside a row of washers. She returned to find the girl pulling her clothes into a basket. “Oh, that’s okay, Charlene. I can do that.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, placing one of the towels on the table to fold it.
Maureen thanked her again, reaching into the basket for the undies she preferred to fold herself.
“So how does he know that anyway?” Charlene said. “The stuff about parents and their grown-up kids?”
“Studied them in a lab, I guess. I don’t imagine he ever had any specimens of his own.”
“Or maybe he bowed out by the time his kids were toddlers. Maybe he made friends with them later, when they were all grown up.”
“Yes. After they were potty-trained and tantrum-free,” Maureen said, wondering how Charlene knew of such behavior, whether it was something she’d seen in her family. “That’s not a bad way to do it, really, because the longer you stick around, the more they hold against you.”
“Your kids angry at you?”
Charlene spread a bath towel on the folding table and Maureen noticed its frayed edges, as if for the first time. “Not angry exactly. I just seem to bring back bad memories for them.”
“That’s too bad,” she said, and she seemed to mean it.
“Not really. They’re a complicated lot, so arm’s length is mostly fine with me.”
“You don’t miss them?”
“I get lots of sentimental Mother’s Day cards and their deepest regrets at Christmas that they can’t come to Brooklyn because they’re traveling or swamped with shopping.” Maureen dropped a nightgown and the girl picked it up for her so she wouldn’t have to bend. She thanked her, but Charlene shrugged, as if she didn’t know what to make of all these thank yous.
“How many do you have?”
Charlene’s eyes widened.
“Three boys, Irish princes all, and mostly just as bad as you’d expect, but the Lord spares mothers the whole picture.”
“And four girls then?”
“They were the hardest.”
Maureen heard something in her tone, that suspicion young girls have these days about how women should be thought of. But the truth was the truth. “One Irish woman is more than you need to run a place,” she said. “Put four of them together and you need peace talks to get the bread passed.”
That made the girl laugh, as if all was forgiven.
“I’m talking too much,” said Maureen. The laundry was all folded now, packed into her cart. “I’d better get on my way.” She headed to the back of the place to get her summer sweater off the hook.
“I’m done here too,” said Charlene. “Gloria will be here any minute.”
Maureen tipped the cart and pulled it toward the door, trying to keep the girl from seeing the trouble it took.
“How far’s your place from here?”
“Four blocks or so.”
She slipped in front of Maureen to open the door for her. “Listen, if you can wait till Gloria gets here, I can pull that home for you.”
The offer surprised her, and she couldn’t help savoring the kindness, the taste of something missed. “Oh, don’t be silly. I’m fine with it. Don’t have that much today anyway. But thank you. Thank you very much.”
Charlene nodded matter-of-factly, and Maureen wondered what she might be thinking, why she would offer to help. Feeling sorry for an old woman, she supposed.
The next week, the offer came again, and this time she didn’t refuse. But she knew that it was more than her arthritis that made her willing to accept the help, although that was reason enough. The trips home from the Laundromat were getting harder. Within a block, her hip would flare up and she’d recite the rosary until she got to her stoop, then pray all the harder that Mr. Norman might appear and help her get the cart up the steps. It was humiliating, this fragility, the loss of the strength she thought she’d always have. The girl’s help was precious, a reprieve, and it was so easy for her to do, just a small favor. She was strong, young.
“What can I get you to drink?” Maureen asked once they were inside the apartment. “I can put on some tea.” She didn’t wait for an answer, and Charlene followed her into the kitchen.
Once inside, the girl halted, then turned in a circle to take it all in. The shelving in front of the windows was a menagerie of statues and greenery, no size, shape, or color unrepresented. Shelves along the ceiling were packed with more of the same. Her eyes traced the top of the walls. “I guess you’re Catholic,” she whispered.
“Something like that,” said Maureen, not the least bit offended. The Church’s holy bric-a-brac was bizarre even to her, although more so when she was young. Many a mournful statue, staring down from its pedestal, had made her want to reform.
“Do you collect these . . . these . . . ?”
“They’re saints. At least most of them still are. Some of them fell from grace.”
Charlene covered her mouth. She was smiling.
“I’m serious. The Church decided that some of them weren’t saints after all.”
“But why?” she said, clearly understanding how absurd it was. “Which ones?”
“This fella here, for one.” Maureen pulled a chair closer to the wall, about to climb onto it.
Charlene rushed over. “No, don’t. I’ll get it. I can reach.”
“Well, thank you,” said Maureen, warmed again by her kindness.
The girl got on tiptoe. “Which one? This one?”
“That’s the one. St. Christopher.” Charlene took the statue down, handed it to Maureen, but she gave it back, meaning for the girl to look at. “Some Jesuit scholars without enough to do decided he never existed to begin with.”
“Guess the Church changes its mind about things just like everybody else.”
Maureen wondered about the way her voice dropped, whether she’d already had her heart broken, young as she was. “It does, indeed.” She sat down at the table, gestured for Charlene to join her. “I ask you,” she went on as Charlene sat down, “what difference did it make whether he was the real thing or the Easter Bunny? He was real enough to do a perfectly good job for centuries.”
Charlene sat quiet, St. Christopher still in her hand, and Maureen could tell that whatever was on her mind she was not going to open up about it. “Everything changes. Especially marriages,” Maureen said, although she was never sure why that thought had come to her just then. She never spoke of her marriage, certainly not to strangers. “When we get married, we pretend we can make at least one thing stay the same. But we can’t. Of course, it takes some of us a little longer to figure that out. I was a slow learner myself.”
“Were you married a long time?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, as if she’d been rude. “I mean—”
“Not nearly as sorry as I was.”
Charlene smiled. “But you had children.”
“Yes, and they were blessings, really; only one of them got into much trouble.”
The girl placed the statue on the table in front of her, as if a witness were needed. “And you loved him?” she whispered.
“It got a whole lot easier once he passed forty but—”
“No, I mean your husband.”
Maureen heard something in the girl’s voice, almost a longing, and she knew that she should not sidestep this question or make light of it. She should tell the truth. “No,” she told her. “I didn’t. I think I knew very soon that I didn’t.”
“But you had your children anyway—and you loved them?”
These questions were not casual. The girl’s forehead was moist, and her chin was trembling slightly, so Maureen answered with care. “We didn’t have as many choices about what we had or didn’t have, the way you girls do now. But yes. The children were different. Baby love. Powerful thing.”
“Does that happen to everybody? I mean, even if they don’t want the baby?”
“I don’t know,” Maureen said. She’d never considered this before. “But it did for me.”
Charlene never asked her for the information about ending the pregnancy. Maureen pressed it on her finally, like a stick offered to someone about to go under. She wanted to pull the girl back to the way she’d been when they met, strong and kind, so kind. Charlene refused to admit what was happening. Each week that passed—she must have been two months gone by then—made the girl sicker, more withdrawn. Maureen got the pregnancy test kit for her, had a good laugh with the pharmacist over it at the cash register. When it turned out positive, she bought two more kits. Nothing changed, of course.
For weeks they didn’t talk about it again, although they saw each other more and more often. It was understood between them; Charlene would not have the baby. She had dinner at the apartment; they watched TV together—the girl introduced her to The Simpsons, which she pretended to like, lobbying instead for Seinfeld. Once they even went to the movies to see Jurassic Park, which Maureen found silly. Still, she could barely breathe as they walked back up the aisle. The rows of cuddling couples, their contented faces flickering in the lights of the credits made her want to hurry, get away from the loneliness stalking her, breathing on her with its popcorn breath. She was ashamed of it. It had been more than ten years since she’d been in a theatre. She had told herself there was nothing she cared to see, but the truth was she couldn’t bring herself to go alone, and she didn’t have friends anymore. Mary Gleason down the hall had been a friend like that, the kind she’d go places with, but she was gone. And Elizabeth Kroll, who had owned the dress shop on the avenue for so long, sold it and moved in with her daughter in upstate New York.
Being with Charlene made Maureen want to possess things again. It was like adolescence. “I enjoy you so much,” she told her once, realizing even as she said it that it was childish, unlike her. She picked up a magazine from the coffee table, an excuse to look away. But Charlene took it out of her hand, made her look up. “I know you do. I’m glad.”
Maureen saw how the girl could lose herself to others, seemed to prefer it that way. The loss of this child might be a wrong thing, a sin that could curse them both, and she ventured for the first time in that direction one night as they cleared the table.
“What about the child’s father?”
Without a word, Charlene took what remained of the mashed potatoes to the counter, wrapped them the way Maureen preferred.
She asked again.
“What about him?” Charlene said.
“Can you talk to him? Work something out?”
“He’s nobody,” she said, letting the refrigerator door slam closed, as if the father were of no more consequence to her child than the back seat they used to conceive him. This annoyed Maureen, this knee-jerk response women had of sparing men any real understanding of the damage they do. She sighed, remembering the countless reprieves she’d granted men over the years.
Maureen came and stood close beside her at the counter. “There are other ways to handle this. I’m a lot better off than this two-bit place I’m living in.” Charlene seemed preoccupied, rearranging dishes she’d placed in the sink. “I’ve got my Social Security check and my kids send me money.”
She thought she’d spelled it out well enough, but the girl turned and blinked slowly, the way she did when Maureen wasn’t being clear. “What does that have to do with me?”
“You could come here is what I’m saying. We’ll raise the child right here.”
She tried to read Charlene’s reaction, the way she lowered her eyelids. Was it disappointment? Doubt? She saw that the girl didn’t believe her, didn’t think she was truly in a position to give such help. And it pained Maureen that she’d waited so long to offer it. Her hand was on the counter and the girl touched it, as if the offer deserved to be recognized, no matter how impossible. Surely, she could have made Charlene understand she really was able to do this for her. But she didn’t. She knew what the girl was thinking and didn’t correct it.
In the darkness Maureen hears someone at the door again but makes no move to get up. Charlene is in Connecticut, in a little town not far from Greenwich, and there’s no one else she wants to see. She wants to search the girl’s face, look for that little tightening that comes into her jaw when she’s unsure about something. She saw it when they first talked about ending the pregnancy. She’d have to weigh the pros and cons, Maureen told her, consider what it would mean to have to support the child, what she was giving up. But how do you explain something so huge to someone who’s no more than a child herself? The girl lost focus when Maureen spoke of these things. She’d nod, but she didn’t seem frightened about what life alone with a baby would be like, but one afternoon she mentioned her feelings about the baby’s father. “I don’t love him,” she said. “And I’m afraid I won’t be able to love his baby either.”
Maureen knows she should have helped her more with that, helped her see that maybe the two things could be separate. But she didn’t. It’s done. And no amount of prayers to St. Joseph, a man who knew what it was like to be given no choice, is going to change that.
The teakettle begins to whistle softly, and she wants to get to it before it draws attention. She’s not used to having people knocking on her door. It isn’t her they want, of course. It’s a young girl, with a life that still matters. When Charlene is with her, Maureen feels as if she might still matter too. But the girl is not here. She’s in Riverside by now, with almost $2,000 of Maureen’s savings tucked into a zipper pocket inside her knapsack, on her way to visit a doctor, a friend of Maureen’s oldest son, a doctor she can trust, a man who assured them it’s safe to do this, even at five months, who’ll take the girl out of a situation she never wanted to be in.
On the lowest shelf above the sink, in a corner, out of the way of splashing water, the figure of Our Lady stands where she placed it years before, where she can glance at it while she listens to the news and wonders why any being with saintly powers would put up with the nonsense this world conjures. Dust has darkened the creases in the blue robe; the face looks as if it needs a good scrubbing. This isn’t right, Maureen thinks, not just the way she’s neglected the mother of God but this half-life she’s compelled to live. Even routine things—mopping the floor, lifting a ham—are beyond what she can perform. Is she wrong to believe that Charlene can make things bearable? She can’t help it. The girl has become a reason to make her special pot roast, her soda bread. When she tells the girl her stories, they’re new again, shocking, funny. She can help Charlene make her way in the world, convince her to go to school, pay for it. No one needs all the cash she’s saved. Her children are doing well. They send her money instead of visiting. And she sends them thank-you notes instead of calling and being reminded of how little they have to say to each other. Young women can do so much more today. Charlene doesn’t have to settle. She can live here when she returns. She doesn’t have to live with those awful people. The two of them can do for each other. There’ll be time for babies later.
She has prayed to have the girl stay with her, to have someone to wait with her, just for a while. Because she knows it can’t be long. It will come soon. Her legs get heavier each day, her hands more painful, more twisted. The breathless horrors that once came only in the night are daytime visitors now, heralding an ending Maureen finds herself eager for. It’s the terrain in between that terrorizes her, the fear that her strength will leave her altogether, that her body will become a weight she can’t lift. If Charlene’s strength can help her through it, is that so selfish to wish for?
The phone rings, and she steps over to it as quickly as she can manage. Her hello sounds like a nervous question.
“Hi.” It’s Charlene.
Maureen sighs heavily. At last. “I was worried,” she tells her.
“Did you check in at that Y?” Maureen listens to the girl’s breathing for what seems like a long time.
“Yes, I’m there now.”
“So you’ve seen him?” She hears a different sound, a tissue near the mouthpiece maybe.
“No. I haven’t been there yet.”
“But you had an appointment. I don’t understand.”
She fears she’ll lose her balance, reaches for the chair, but it’s too far away, so she leans on the counter instead. “I like this town,” she hears Charlene say. “It’s small, but they have a huge Laundromat.” The girl laughs, and Maureen wants to say something, ward off the pain gathering strength in her hip, in her back. It will take over like a bully and stay as it pleases.
“They must get plenty dirty there,” Maureen says, forcing a laugh.
“I’m going to go there tomorrow.”
“To the doctor?” An odd sound comes through the phone, as if Charlene is outdoors. “Charlene?”
“No, to the Laundromat.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve gotten your things dirty already,” says Maureen, but she’s only marking time. She knows that isn’t what the girl is telling her.
“They have a sign in the window. Help Wanted.”
“Ah,” says Maureen, wanting now only to get off the phone.
“I’ll pay you back,” Charlene whispers.
“Don’t be silly, child.”
“You’ve been so kind. I was . . . I was . . . ”
“What, dear? What is it?”
“I think it moved. On the train. I think I felt something move inside.”
Maureen feels pins and needles in her hands, the way they get when it’s too warm in the apartment. “Ah. Well then,” she says, but the girl doesn’t answer. It’s as if Maureen is alone on the line. She can’t even hear her breathing.
“I’ll call you?” Charlene says finally.
“Yes. You must call.”
Maureen can’t bear to hear any more. She returns the receiver to the cradle, so frightened she struggles for breath. The scream she wants to let free stops in her throat and she remains motionless, waiting to see what her body will do next. She turns, trembling, and takes her beads off the hook above the counter, recites the opening of the rosary, lets its rhythm return her breath to her. She leans her weight on the stove and then on the counter, makes her way back to the sink. Images of Kate, her firstborn, navigating her way along the living room furniture come to her; within days she’d taken her first steps.
Something glistening on the floor tiles catches her eye. Just some water, she thinks, wishing she could replace the grout, all dirty and cracked. A few of the tiles are chipped as well. She remembers the clatter Kate made pulling pots and pans from the cabinet, her tight grip on the lids, the noise a small price to pay for keeping her entertained. Maureen imagines Charlene’s little one a year from now—dark skin, bright eyes, the smell of soap and baby lotion, a grasp as strong as her mom’s. The child would have been fine here. They could have managed. As she bends to wipe the spill from the floor, a vicious pain shoots through her hip, to punish her, she’s certain, for not making that clear to Charlene.
She stands up more quickly than she should, determined to accomplish something. Our Lady is only slightly out of reach, so she stands on her toes, grips the sink edge with one hand, and gets the statue down. She’s been meaning to wash it. When she places it under the tap, the water comes too strong, forcing the figurine out of her hands. It hits the sink hard, and Maureen shuts her eyes, certain it will break, but it doesn’t. She turns the water off and picks it up. A long crack has made a trail from the snake at the Virgin’s feet all the way up to her neck. With the corner of a dishrag, she wipes Mary’s face and begins coaxing the dirt out of the robe, one fold at a time. The blue brightens, but the cheeks do not. The paint there has faded.
Still, the crack has not reached her face. That’s good anyway. She can turn it slightly to the left on the shelf so that no one will see that she’s damaged.
And she’ll find a way to cut down on the laundry, a way to lighten the weight of that cart.