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Authors: Ashley Warlick

The Arrangement (7 page)

BOOK: The Arrangement
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“I like our little house. I like our privacy.”

“Of course you do.” He unclasped her wrists from his neck, straightened the lapel of his coat as though she’d mussed it. “Aren’t we off to the Ranch for family lunch?”

“I mean it, Al.”

“I know. I know.”

He was finished talking, already walking away, and she knew this would burn through the afternoon with him, especially in front of her parents. Al often found it easier to put distance between them before afternoons at the Ranch, when it became so clear how tightly she still fit to her family. Today she was relieved as well. Now she had something tangible to be responsible for, which was a whole lot easier than pretending things were fine.

*   *   *

In the long, low-lit kitchen at the Ranch, her sister Anne looked thin and frayed. She and the baby had driven down from San Francisco, and Sean was still squirmy and drooling, a tight bundle of new energy. Anne held him in her lap and tried to spoon him oatmeal, most of it clotting on his cheeks, his waving hands. His hands were everywhere.

“Oh, Sis,” Mary Frances said. “Go take a nap. You’re exhausted.”

Anne made a sacrificing smile. “I’m fine.”

“I can watch him. Mother’s upstairs.”

Mary Frances took the spoon and rested her chin on the block next to Sean’s bowl of oatmeal. He was laughing, round and white, a baby like dough. She dipped the spoon toward his mouth once, twice, the whole thing like trying to daub honey from a pot, and Anne began to cry.

It was almost embarrassing, how fragile Anne seemed since the divorce. She dithered and sighed; she rarely had anything nice to say. Mary Frances could not imagine surviving a life where she spent so much time with her face in her hands. Perhaps it was better not to live with your mistakes, or at least not to let them out into the open for everyone else to live with.

Mary Frances snatched Sean onto her hip, oatmeal now on her blouse, in her hair, which she’d just washed and set the night before. She plugged the sink and put him in it, clothes and all. He squealed.

“Let’s give him something he might really like, Sis. What do you say? Let’s give him applesauce.”

Mary Frances handed Sean a jar and watched him feed himself, the first bite strange and tart, everything he thought about it happening right there on his face. She tried to remember the last time she’d tasted something for the first time, but that comparison failed quickly, as Sean was new, and new to everything.

“I don’t miss him,” Anne said now, and they were back to talking about her husband. Maybe they were always talking about her husband. “I don’t. I’m just so tired all the time, Dote. It’s too much.”

Mary Frances took back the jar of applesauce and watched as Sean fisted the soap toward his mouth. She didn’t miss Anne’s husband either, a brute and a boor, and thank god Anne left him, but she wasn’t sure that was what she was supposed to say now. She lifted a palmful of warm water over Sean’s head, and he sputtered, Mary Frances twitching back to keep from getting wet.

“I’ll do it,” Anne said sharply.

“It’s all right. It’s just water.”

Mary Frances tugged at the buttons on Sean’s shoulder, his wet jacket and undersuit, unpinned his diaper, the clothing slapping to a pile on the floor by her feet. She held his wrist to keep him from slipping away.

Out the kitchen window, Al sat beneath a lemon tree with an open book he was not reading in his lap. Mary Frances wanted him to look up, to see her wrestling with Sean and for it to make him laugh, but he kept looking at the book, and the moment passed.

“Mother’s coming,” Anne said, and she pushed off her stool, making her way out the back door to the garden before
Edith could see her crying. She passed before the lemon tree like a shade.

“Oh, Mary Frances, let Liesl bathe him,” Edith called. “You’re going to be entirely soaked.”

“Liesl will be getting lunch, Mother.”

“She wants you to clear out of here anyhow for that. Where is Anne?”

Mary Frances shrugged her shoulders.

Edith’s face turned tight. “I keep hoping she will wake up from this mood she’s in. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? She was married for three years.”

“We could just pretend it never happened.”

“Of course it happened.” Edith moved to take the baby in his towel. “We have Sean here to show for it.”

“I was joking, Mother. I meant to be funny.”

“Your Dote,” Edith said to Sean, who had a firm grip on her earlobe, “is a ninny.”

In the garden, Al still sat beneath the lemon tree with his cheekbone balanced on his fingertips, his ankle across his knee. She could see the worn-out sole of his shoe. What happened, what didn’t happen, what you wished to happen, and what you pretended not to, what you worried was about to happen. It was hard for Mary Frances to decide where to place her care anymore.

Edith called her from upstairs. Where were the baby’s clothes?

*   *   *

Everyone gathered at the long walnut table in the dining room, and Rex opened a bottle of wine, beginning the patter
of luncheon conversation, raised glasses, gentle compliments to the food and company. No one mentioned Anne’s husband or the strike in San Francisco, the drought, or the fact that Rex needed an editor at the paper. Her younger siblings Norah and David were home from school in a week, and they’d have the holidays together at the Ranch; more of these gatherings, less that could be talked about. Over her father’s shoulder, Mary Frances could see the broad globe of the fishbowl in his study, the shimmer of movement in the late light.

She would just say it; that would be the most natural thing to do.

“Al and I are moving to Laurel Canyon, after the holidays.” She looked at Al, and he stepped in to explain.

“A delicate situation, really,” Al said. “It seems—”

“Delicate?” Rex rested his glass beside his plate.

“Nothing at the college, sir. It seems, well, you remember the Parrishes, from Laguna?”

Mary Frances bit the inside of her lip to keep quiet. It was taking so long for Al to get around to it, she was stuck here, waiting for him to say the wrong thing. She was sorry she’d brought the matter up at the dinner table. She could have just told Edith, let her pass it on. Rex shook his head; he was a midwesterner at heart, and no one from Indiana got divorced.

“You people,” he said, picking up the delicate cage of the hen’s breast. He closed his eyes to take a bite.

“Us, Daddy?” Anne said. She could not abide to be judged wanting.

Then like a door slamming, Sean wailed from his cradle by the fireplace, and Anne sprang up so fast her chair tipped back onto the floor. Al reached down with one long arm and
righted it, still nodding his head at Rex, whatever Rex had to say. Anne called for Liesl in the kitchen and Sean’s bottle, the afternoon turning back so easily toward the baby’s needs and satisfactions, their announcement seemed gone as quickly as it had come.

After lunch, Al was ready to go home.

“I need to get back to my study. I have notes.” He jabbed his book in the air like a prophet. “I thought we were just going to stay for the one thing.”

“Mother wants to take me into town. Can we stay just an hour?”

“For what?”

“It’s almost Christmas.” She turned to brush out her hair. It was silly to be so vague, she knew it, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. If she said they were going shopping, Al would draw up like a sponge. “You could sit in the garden and read again like this morning. That would be quiet.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Please, Al.” She dropped her hair around her shoulders and turned to face him, but he was already stepping back, determined to keep their distance as it was.

“What difference would it make if I refused?” he said. “Go ahead. Have a nice time.”

She laughed as if he were joking and turned back to the mirror. Rouge, a dab of Vaseline on her eyelids to make them shine. When she opened her eyes again, she was relived to see him gone.

Edith was waiting in the foyer in her sensible shoes.

“Shall I bring the car around?” Mary Frances said.

“We can walk. It will do us good after that meal.”

“We’re not going into the city?”

“Your father’s money is spent right here in Whittier these days. He supports this town in thick and thin. And I need the constitutional.”

Anne arrived on the stairs. “You sound like Grandmother.”

“And you sound disrespectful.”

Anne’s expression could blacken like a cloud. “Mother.”

“Here we are then,” Mary Frances said, holding one arm for Edith and the other for Anne.

Edith was having one of her days of resolution; they would walk because she wanted to, and perhaps it would improve her mood. Rex walked to town every morning. He said it was better than church for clean living, and god knew he never went to church.

Whittier was a Quaker settlement, and Christmas was no more or less holy than any other day. But when Mary Frances was a child and they lived downtown on Painter Street, Christmas morning she and Anne would run to the sleeping porch and crawl into bed with Rex, Edith already gone to sing with the Episcopalian choir. At dawn, a trumpet played “Joy to the World” from the steeple of the meetinghouse, chilly, trembling notes in each direction. Mary Frances thought of the pale, church-bound holidays in Dijon, she and Al shivering in their apartment, waiting for the peal of bells. It had not been much different: the promise of a child’s holiday to come.

Somehow today didn’t seem as much like Christmas as it
might have when they were children. Part of it was Norah and Dave off at school, but too, as they passed into town itself, the shops were quiet, some of them with the windows papered over with the
Whittier News
.

Edith stopped to read the dates, full of tut and bustle, one hand twisting at the other. “Your poor father.”

“He didn’t close the hat shop.”

“But he sees it, Dote. And I know it kills him.”

And here her mother headed into the version of Rex-as-pillar-of-the-community. People of Whittier looked to him for solutions and responsibility, had always looked to him, but especially now that times were hard and jobs were few. Anne rolled her eyes and turned away, but Mary Frances liked this version. Rex was a great man; Rex was her father.

“I saw an old woman, a woman my age,” Edith said. “Down in the orange groves by the Ranch with a pack of hungry children. I don’t think they were even her children. I told her to pick all the oranges she wanted.”

Edith was intent, and clearly Mary Frances’s audience was not enough; Mary Frances could see it, and she didn’t know why Anne could not or would not. It would be Anne’s first Christmas on her own with the baby, and everyone was worried she was turning mawkish.

Mary Frances caught her sister by the elbow. “What will Santa Claus bring Sean?” she said. “I want to make him something. I could knit him a sweater. Herbert Fisher brought me some really lovely lamb’s wool last winter, and I never did anything with it.”

Anne squeezed Mary Frances’s hand where it fell across her arm. “Sweet of you,” she said. “You are so talented. I
never have time for that sort of thing anymore. Or patience. By the time I get home from the office—”

Mary Frances let out her breath, and let her sister talk.

*   *   *

Edith bought Mary Frances a dress of deep russet silk, the skirt fluted and biased close, with a bracelet-length bishop sleeve and a keyhole tied at the neckline. The color set off her skin, her eyes. The dress cost as much as a week’s rent for the house in Eagle Rock, and Mary Frances could not remember the last time she’d worn something so pretty.

Anne laid the flat of her palm against Mary Frances’s hip, nudging her around to model. She was not trying on dresses herself.

“It’s just right, Dote,” she said, and she kept spinning her until Mary Frances stumbled and laughed.

“You buy one, Anne.”

“I need so many things before a new dress. Besides, who would I wear it for?”

“Oh, come on, now.”

“You’ll see someday. You and Al will have a child, and then what you want will be different. Or god forbid, you won’t know what you want anymore. . . .” Anne wandered to the curtain at the edge of the dressing room and stared off theatrically.

Mary Frances didn’t know if she could bear to hear her go on like this. A baby didn’t make you smarter, or a humanitarian. Without really thinking about it first, Mary Frances blew right into the middle of Anne’s speech to say she wondered if she and Al would ever have a child anyway.

The talk stopped. Anne’s fingers played the base of her throat. “You mean?” she said.

“I thought maybe I was pregnant last spring, but frankly I was relieved to be wrong. Anyhow, I’m not sure it’s for us.”

Anne was quiet. The quiet rang through the dress shop, out to the settee where Edith waited with her tea, and beyond. They had talked often about Anne and Ted, but Mary Frances had never offered anything about her own marriage in return, and in one deep breath she’d drawn back the curtain entirely.

Anne touched the top of Mary Frances’s head and left the dressing room. Edith would know in a matter of seconds, and later Rex, and then Nora, eventually even David. Every Kennedy knew everything about each other. She reached around herself to unbutton the dress, its skirt slicking to the floor, and she wanted to go with it. There would be no one she could ever tell about what she’d done with Tim.

She looked at herself in the mirror. There were carolers on the street, and she could hear them singing about good kings and laden boughs, probably for money, or worse, for food, and here she was about to take a silk dress from a shop because her mother still bought her clothes. She turned to see the shabby edge of lace along her hem, her second pair of stockings, not her good ones, held at the garter with a pin. She fingered her slip at her shoulder where she’d stitched it, just the touch drawing that particular evening to her mind again, and she whispered
no no no
over and over to herself. This was not her life: this dress, the move to Laurel Canyon. These were not the things she could afford.

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