Margaret was thinking about how to answer one of her interviewer’s questions. She loathed giving interviews and loathed taking them even more, as she sometimes did for a quarterly to whose editor she owed a favor. Interviews, with their false enthusiasms and faked interest, reminded her of her prior career as a lawyer. It was like examining witnesses, who lied to your face before going on to lie to judges and veniremen. Life could only contain so much dissembling. But here she was at it again.
An intern came forward and leaned down to whisper that her daughter had gone into labor. Margaret jumped in her chair slightly, apologized to her reporter, and wound her collar mic around herself as she folded the items on her lap into her bag.
Julie lived in Santa Fe, which always involved a layover out of New York. This time it was Kansas City, its golden tableland and drying rivers sending waves of heat up over the tarmac’s confetti of sleeping and slowly moving planes. These peripheral cities were filled with smokers, and the smoking lounge, silent as it was with its TV broken, enabled her to get in a quick call to her daughter’s husband Tom
His voice was tired, as she expected. When she asked how they were he simply said “OK” or “Fine.” Announcements interrupted the distant, disembodied voice. There was a tone beyond fatigue to his one-word answers. A spasm of heat climbed from her stomach up to her chest.
The smaller baby jet to Santa Fe was crowded with its usual Western hats, horse tack and bridles, and wet, bright orange garlands of chilis that looked like centipedes in the overhead bins. The flight attendants wore shorts. The old, unspoiled Santa Fe airport lifted her spirits with its carved oak benches, their cushions checkered with embroidered Pueblo suns and arrows and horses running away over hills.
Tom was gone when she got to the hospital. An orderly said he’d needed to go home to sleep. A nurse gave her booties and stood holding a paper towel while she washed her hands with stinging disinfectant. The orderly pointed down the hall. “Last room on the left. She’s probably awake. She’s been feeding her.”
Margaret savored the moment she first saw them from the doorway. Julie was propped up in bed, her face red and puffy. The baby was asleep on her chest.
Margaret stepped toward them and Julie, trying to smile, only pursed her lips and lifted her eyebrows.
“She’s deaf,” said her daughter. “She’s mute, they say. Her vocal chords were never really formed. Or they fused together. Something.”
Margaret froze. She realized she was still smiling and shouldn’t be. But she had to do something. She stepped forward and looked down on the baby’s wet dark hair and perfect lips.
“She can’t hear or make sounds,” Julie said again, her voice breaking. “Did you hear what I said?”
Margaret closed her eyes and moved her head forward. A yes.
“Does Tom know?” Margaret asked, leaning down closer, into the cloud of warmth and powder smell.
“Yes. He took off.”
Margaret lifted her up and heard her daughter sucking in her breath and holding it, letting it out. When Julie took another, longer breath Margaret thought it was some kind of meditation or yoga, something one of the nurses had taught her.
“I don’t know where he is,” said Julie. Her mother held the bird-sized, almost weightless creature. She always marveled at the near nothingness of infants. They made her uneasy, truth be told. Was it Rilke who said there was no fragility like the human come down into the world? The grandmother (grandmother!) looked at the now blue open eyes, the smooth downy cheeks and the red forehead creased by the womb journey. She loved the smells, the movement of its tiny pencil limbs. She saw the eyes looking at her, not quite seeing, the grown woman probably no more than a cloud of shadows and circles to the baby.
When Julie’s gasps became a harsh, abbreviated sob, Margaret knew she was not rising to her daughter’s needs, the moment’s terrible, demanding uniqueness.
“Have you named her?”
“Miranda,” said Julie. She reached forward for a tissue out of a box.
“It’s beautiful,” Margaret said. “The Tempest.’ But she knew she was being of no help, that her daughter needed something—something unnamable and maybe never to be known—that she could not give her. Julie wouldn’t look up. The baby squirmed, and Margaret felt the deepest of shame that no words—that trove of signs she worked in—could come to her to make normal or joyful the place where the three of them stood. She felt only a black, engulfing guilt at her failure, a desire to actually leave, which compounded into an even greater emptiness.
“She’s beautiful,” said Margaret, bringing her back to the new mother. Julie nodded. In a way that still could not acknowledge what she’d been told, Margaret asked if there were things she could get at the store.
There were. She made notes to herself and told Julie she would be right back.
Walking through the drugstore aisles, thinking of Miranda, Margaret realized that the moment she’d been through—it was finally sinking in—would be one of those junctures that changed everyone’s life, that gave a new meaning to everything that had come before and after. There was no getting around it, no sidestepping its constant grip on the small, proud circle of minds that formed their family. The future would be a long, helpless stream of uncertainty, possibly panic—gripping and loosening, loosening and gripping again, slipping finally out of control like a car hydroplaning up off a storm-soaked road. What happened in the future would not so much be a continuation of life as an imitation of it, darkly congested, chocked with episodes of diminishment, of backward steps. Of stumbles.
She imagined holding the baby now. She had been sleeping in Julie’s arms. There had been no opportunity for her to cry, to yawn with the small noises of wanting, of discomfort, the sounds of living and of rising life. Would she just arch back her head and try? How would she know, at first, what wasn’t there in her, what others had but she did not? When there was something other than sight and movement in those that surrounded her, how would she be able to tell?
A bottle of something had fallen in front of her, probably only moments before. It was blue, thickly flowing out of the open wedge its container had become.
A voice rose loudly from a circle of girls she felt had been watching her.
“Margaret Stevens?” a girl asked, wide-eyed. Her hair stuck out in spikes. There was a neck tattoo, unreadable.
It didn’t happen often. But it happened.
“Will you sign something for me?” another girl asked. She was opening a roll of masking tape, a white color, not the usual brown.
“I can put it in the book later,” she said, looking for something she could lay it on that would not stick fast. “Southern Bird is one of my favorite novels.”
Margaret looked down with gratitude.
“How long did it take?” another girl asked. The first fan was handing her the tape.
“You don’t remember,” Margaret said. “When it’s that long ago.”
She signed both strips. “Like it is a book I had once written, like someone else had written it.”
The girls were sighing.
“But still myself,” she said, smiling. “A different self.” The girls laughed together, an anxious, giddy circle of mirth.
“It’s really a thrill to meet you” said the third. She didn’t reach for the tape. Her hero’s just being there was enough.
“Such a pleasure to meet serious readers. Young readers. I never believe it when they say young people don’t read any more.” Margaret pointed down at the iPhones tucked in their jeans, and smiled. The girls laughed again, a feathery, almost-nothing sound.
No one said anything for a minute.
“I became a grandmother a few days ago. Just flew here to see her and I’m a little zonked.”
The girls congratulated her in unison.
“I need to get some stuff,” she said. When she said ‘nappies,’ unable to shake the word after decades in America, the girls stared blankly.
“It was such a pleasure to meet you,” Margaret repeated. The third girl, who didn’t want a signature, clapped silently. The other two, as if twins whose speech was conjoined, said “Likewise.”
Margaret walked on around them, her fingers moving in mock goodbye. The aisle in front of her was tidy and bright. She could not see where it ended.
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