Medium 9781912573318

The Hands of Gravity and Chance

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The Hands of Gravity and Chance is a spell-binding story in which parents find themselves promising and then rescinding what they do not have to give. The story opens with the fall of a thirteen-year-old girl down the stairs of the family house, an event that generates fault lines that spread both forward and backward in time, releasing an explosive energy of love and fear, bitterness and remorse.

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One

ePub

It is a large house, once grand, but no longer. A turn-of-the-century, Midwestern farmhouse that almost certainly, at one time, was trailed by fields of corn and soybean, like an enormous regal cape. There must have been a barn and silos and other outbuildings, but no trace of them remains. The house now is confined to less than an acre of land. The front porch is sorely in need of repair, as is the lichen-spotted, wood-shingled roof. The most attractive feature of the house is the forest-green shutters that stand out in bold relief against the chipping white paint surrounding them.

On both sides of the house are 1950s-style ranch houses, one with a television dish attached to its side, the other crowned by an elaborate antenna sporting eight or ten thin, aluminum rods pointing upward and outward, gesticulating in the wind.

The house is set back farther from the road than are the neighboring houses, giving it a quality of reserve. This effect is compounded by the steep set of brick steps with several landings, which rise abruptly from a road that at one time was a dirt thoroughfare connecting the farmlands and the city.

 

Two

ePub

The front door and storm door were still open, letting in the cold evening air. The storm door wheezed as it moved in the strong breeze. Margaret and her nephews, Erin and Damien, stood stunned in the front hall for quite some time without saying a word. The pale yellow blankets that had covered Catherine remained in a heap on the floor.

As they stood there, they could feel that something in them had been changed by what had happened, but none of them had a name for that change. Something that had been silently imminent had finally occurred.

A gust of wind slammed the storm door shut with such force that the blast shook the three of them out of the half-sleep in which they'd been enfolded. The entrance hall felt as if it had been gutted.

Margaret closed both doors and switched on the lights. The boys squinted as if coming out of a cave into bright sunlight. For Erin, the dark brown stairs took on a purple hue, and the yellow walls appeared to be awash with large, swimming patches of orange and green. Damien kept his eyes closed as he walked clumsily into the unlit living room.

 

Three

ePub

Rose had been standing in the waiting room for an hour, maybe two. She was too anxious to sit. The plate glass windows traversing the full length of the room were now completely black, throwing back at her a reflection of herself surrounded by orange vinyl couches and armchairs. She quickly averted her eyes after glimpsing her reflection. She hated the sight of herself.

A female voice calling Rose's name barely pierced the din of the two enormous television sets hanging from the ceiling, facing the family groups that were gathered like Bedouins under blankets. Children played at the feet of multiple generations of adults. Rose made her way over the extended legs of the adults and through the clusters of squirming children on the floor. In the small piece of unoccupied space near the twin doors to the room, Rose saw a dour-looking woman in a white nurse's uniform, impatiently waiting.

The nurse, after verifying that Rose was in fact the person whose name she had called, told Rose that Dr. Weber, the director of the Pediatrics ICU, would see her now. The nurse led the way down the hall toward the ICU and stopped at a door with DR. WEBER printed on a badly scratched, stainless steel nameplate, which had been slipped into a horizontal metal holder. The nurse knocked on the door.

 

Four

ePub

Erin and Damien were relieved to hear that Catherine had regained consciousness and that she was getting better. They returned to their bedroom and got back into bed, neither boy saying a word. They fell asleep listening to the soft rumbling of their mother's bath water and the sound of someone talking, which didn't surprise them. They'd grown accustomed to Rose's talking to herself at night.

Later that same night, Erin was awoken by Damien, who was rummaging for something across the room in the dark. Erin switched on the table lamp next to his bed, which filled the room with yellowish light that cast thick black shadows across the walls and floor.

Erin, at first, could only make out the outlines of Damien as his eyes adjusted to the light.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for my radio.”

“Why?”

“Can't sleep.”

“How come?”

“I just can't.”

Damien began to cry and turned to leave the room. Erin, whose bed was closer to the door, jumped out of bed and planted himself squarely between Damien and the door. Considerably larger than Erin, and not wanting to knock his brother down, Damien tried to outmaneuver him like a football player sidestepping a defender. Erin was able to get an arm around Damien's waist as he tried to get by. Though Damien could have twisted free, he didn't. He just stopped where he was in Erin's half-embrace. He didn't turn his head because that would have brought his face too close to Erin's.

 

Five

ePub

Rose dressed quickly after receiving the call from the ward clerk and arrived at the hospital at about quarter to five in the morning. A faint turquoise streak had begun to form at the horizon as she pulled into the visitors' outdoor parking lot. She'd had another couple of swallows of bourbon before leaving the house. Walking from the lot to the main entrance to the hospital, she could hear the sound of distant highway traffic. Several night workers in dark blue jumpsuits were standing outside one of the back exits of the hospital, talking loudly and laughing together. Rose couldn't stop herself from endlessly recounting the voice of the ICU ward clerk saying that the doctor had asked her to notify her that there had been a change in Catherine's condition. Those were the words the ward clerk had used—“a change in Catherine's condition.” The woman said she didn't know what change had occurred. Rose didn't believe her.

The doors to the Pediatrics ICU remained closed when Rose pressed the red button that Dr. Weber had used to open them. She stood there paralyzed by fear that Catherine was dead. The doors opened, as if by magic, for a thin black man in scrubs pushing a metal cart with loose, squeaking wheels. Rose walked next to the man as he pushed his cart into the ICU.

 

Six

ePub

During the hours that Rose sat next to Catherine's bed, her mind was drawn to the past. The details of particular days felt as clear and immediate now as they'd been when they occurred. Rose's thoughts most often were drawn to that evening when she had called Margaret and asked her to come to the house after the children were asleep. The torpor of that hot, humid day in July had been shattered by a thunderstorm in the late afternoon, leaving in its wake thick, cool evening air.

Once Margaret arrived, they sat in the living room, which was strewn with plastic toys, wooden blocks, and bright red metal trucks and cars. A dark wooden coffee table stood askew between the peach-colored couch and the fireplace. Margaret cleared the drawing books and crayons off one end of the couch to make a place to sit, while Rose turned on several floor lamps, straightened the coffee table, and slid one of the armchairs close to the end of the couch where Margaret was sitting.

Rose began by saying, “I can't manage.”

 

Seven

ePub

Rose called Margaret on a Sunday morning, a few days after she'd asked Margaret to take Damien. She said that the situation with Damien was getting much worse. They arranged to meet that evening at Rose's house, after the children were asleep.

When Margaret arrived and they were seated in Rose's living room, Margaret began, “At times it feels to me as if we're playing God with Damien. But it's our job to make decisions like this for him. To tell you the truth, I'm not at all sure I have it in me to be a good mother to him.”

Interrupting, Rose said pleadingly, “I need to know. Please, tell me what you're going to do.”

“You know I'm not good with children.”

“Margaret, stop it. Are you going to take Damien or aren't you?”

Margaret nodded and said, “I will. I've decided that's what I want to do.”

“I…,” Rose said, trying to complete the sentence she had in her head, but finding it impossible to continue, the words seeming to be caught in a constriction of her throat. She made several more attempts to complete the sentence, and then put up her hand as a way of asking Margaret to give her time to finish saying what she wanted to say before Margaret said anything more. After a minute or so, Rose, brushing away the tears that had gathered at her chin, said, “Margaret, I feel as if you've saved Damien's life, and mine. I genuinely believe that this is best for him, and I hope it's best for you, too.”

 

Eight

ePub

After Rose and Catherine left, Damien slept deeply on Margaret's living room couch, saliva dripping from his mouth. Margaret felt oddly tranquil. Despite the fact that she and Damien had begun to get used to one another during the visits he'd made to her house, she knew that Damien had not experienced her house as his home, nor had he, in any sense, come to view her as his mother. She stroked his shin as she read, the shin of a frightened little boy, now her own. He was an endearing child lying there in his blue short pants, short-sleeved orangey-yellow T shirt, and black and green striped socks. He didn't like long pants because they were too scratchy, Rose had said. Margaret had no doubt that Rose had chosen with great care this particular combination of colors and styles, just as she'd dressed her dolls when she was a girl.

When Damien eventually began to stir, after almost two hours, Margaret girded herself. Damien slowly sat up, his eyes unfocused. On his right cheek, the cheek on which he'd been sleeping, there was a perfectly round, dark red spot, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. He surveyed the room, looking for the familiar.

 

Nine

ePub

Rose watched Catherine sleep in the semi-darkness of her isolation room in the ICU. She'd had another bleed, this time a much larger one, that had required an emergency craniotomy to drain the blood and staunch the bleeding. Catherine's head was now wrapped in an even larger turban of white gauze. As Rose stood at her bedside, there was no mistaking the droop of the left side of Catherine's face. The cloud-shaped bruise marks on the right side of her face had turned from bright purple to reddish brown. Rose did not know how many days had passed since Catherine had been admitted to the ICU. As in dreams, time did not pass, it disappeared.

Rose dozed by the side of Catherine's bed and then stood to look out of the window, only to be reminded that the ICU has no windows. Though Rose had spent many days and nights in Catherine's room, it came as a slap across the face each time she was denied even a momentary glimpse of the outside world. Rose, at this point, had to deduce virtually everything having to do with time—whether it was day or night, when she had last slept and for how long, the day of the week, the season, when she last ate, the last time she'd bathed, whether Margaret had just left or was just about to arrive, the number of subdural bleeds Catherine had had, how long it had been since the last bleed, the degree of clarity of Catherine's consciousness, how long it had been since Catherine was last awake, and so on.

 

Ten

ePub

Margaret would never forget the triumphant sound of Damien's grunts and muted screams as the books flew out of the bookcases and crashed to the floor, or the delight in his face as he tackled the towers of books that Sybil stacked to the height of his chest. It was obvious to Margaret from as far back as she could remember that Rose was far better than she was with children, and far better with adults, too, except at work. Anywhere other than work, Margaret felt as if she was made of cardboard.

While watching Sybil and Damien that first morning, Margaret tried to make sense of the event she was witnessing. It seemed that Sybil was inviting Damien to join her in gloriously subversive activity, a joyful protest, a tearing down of the castle walls, an embracing of anarchy, an active rejection of the rules, an assertion of freedom and independence. And what most astonished Margaret was the fact that what she was seeing did not feel the least bit dangerous, out of control, or destructive. Sybil retained her authority as an adult, while seeming to be an equal partner with Damien. This was a sleight of hand that Sybil performed masterfully. She was at the same time a rebel and the law. She made it work.

 

Eleven

ePub

One evening as she quietly left Damien's room after getting him settled in his bed for the night, Margaret was startled to find Sybil waiting for her outside the door. The two of them made their way down the hallway into the kitchen, which had a bluish hue because it was lit solely by tubes of fluorescent lights encased in long plastic cases attached to the ceiling.

Margaret's stomach tightened as she and Sybil took seats on opposite sides of the kitchen table.

“There's been something I've been putting off for a long time,” Sybil began.

Margaret had lived in dread of this moment ever since she hired Sybil almost three years earlier. She knew what Sybil was going to say—that she loved Damien as if he were her own child, and that it was going to be difficult to leave the two of them, but she had decided to return to New York City. Margaret was deeply saddened to hear Sybil speak these words.

“My sister, Edna, told me that the phone company is hiring girls, including colored girls, to work the switchboards. I sent them a letter and they wrote back and said they want to talk to me. I'd like to work with people my age. I love Damien, but I get lonely for people my age and a different kind of job.”

 

Twelve

ePub

While Catherine was in the hospital, Margaret visited every day, bringing fresh clothes for Rose, and a book or a sweet or a magazine that she thought Catherine might like. During the week following Catherine's fall, Margaret slept at Rose's house with the boys. The three of them made strange bedfellows. Margaret was at a loss to know what to say to Damien and Erin, and they were at a loss to know what to say to her. Margaret had no idea how to relate to teenage boys, particularly Damien, given their ragged history together. As time went on, Margaret, with increasing frequency, called to say that she had to work late, so the boys should order pizza and pay for it with the money she'd left in the bowl in the front hall. One evening, when she had to work past midnight, she decided that since the boys were already asleep, it wouldn't do anybody any harm if she slept at home, just this once. In the days that followed, she began to sleep at home once in a while, and in a matter of weeks she found herself sleeping at home every night.

 

Thirteen

ePub

Erin was nothing less than revered at school. He was an intelligent boy, a handsome boy, a kind boy whom other boys looked up to. There was a sturdiness about him, an uncultivated charisma. He protected the marginal kids, not with physical force or even words, but simply by including them in what he was doing, which sometimes amounted to nothing more than lingering for a moment or two in the lavatory—that hallowed ground in a high school—simply to speak a sentence or two about nothing at all before reentering the river of students outside that place of momentary calm. He was the most popular boy in school, but didn't have a single friend, a real friend, except Damien.

Erin's stature allowed him to break a sacrosanct part of the school's unwritten social code during the time that Rose was living at the hospital with Catherine. The social code forbade a junior high school student from sitting in the half of the lunchroom reserved for high school students (physically, the two halves of the lunchroom were identical). Despite the dictates of this code, during the weeks following Catherine's fall, Erin ate lunch with Damien, who was a junior high school student at the time. Erin never explained to Damien why he did this, and Damien never asked. When they ate in the junior high school area, Erin was looked on with quiet awe. When they entered the high school half of the lunchroom, the volume of background chatter diminished, announcing something ominous. Bringing a younger brother into the high school area was unprecedented. The rules were simple, and everybody obeyed them. For Damien, walking next to Erin into the high school area was like walking on air.

 

Fourteen

ePub

Margaret felt enormously relieved by the way Rose sure-handedly took charge of the disaster that had begun with Sybil's departure. Her face was still wet with tears as she walked Rose and Catherine to the door. Margaret leaned down and kissed Catherine on the top of her head. Now, in late morning, the sunlight was nearing its full intensity, bleaching the color from everything it touched. After closing the door, Margaret returned to the library and collapsed into the chair in which she'd been sitting while talking with Rose about Damien's despair, and her own. Leaning back, she deeply inhaled the stillness and silence of the room. Before Rose left Margaret's house that morning, Margaret had asked her to promise that if Damien didn't begin to show improvement, Rose would take Damien to live with her, permanently. Rose promised she would.

Margaret sat with Damien on her bed that night as she read him his favorite bedtime stories, in which he showed not the slightest interest. Even though it was only seven-thirty, they were both exhausted. Margaret got Damien into his pajamas, helped him get under the bed sheets of her bed, and climbed into bed herself, where, for the first time, she lay next to Damien. He had confirmed her worst fears about herself. She didn't feel like a woman, much less a mother, when she was with him. She had hoped to feel protective of him, and proud of him, and happy with him in a way a mother does, but only on rare occasions had she felt any of those emotions.

 

Fifteen

ePub

Erin was surprised to see a boy in the kitchen with his mother and Catherine when he returned home from school that day in early June. Rose explained as best she could that Damien, whom Erin remembered as a very young child, was now going to be living with them again. Erin didn't really care about the details of why Damien was there. All that mattered to him was that he finally had a brother. The girly things that his mother and Catherine liked were boring and annoying to him. Erin asked his mother if Damien was going to be staying forever. When Rose said he was, he beamed with excitement. Erin's enthusiasm caused Damien to pull back, but he soon became entranced by this older boy who was so full of a feeling that he had never before encountered. It was a good feeling, a feeling he could feel in his body that was like laughter in his chest.

Before his mother finished her explanation of what was happening, Erin grabbed Damien's arm and pulled him off his chair, into the front hall, and up the stairs. Before Damien knew what was happening to him, he found himself in a room with two beds separated by a small table, two windows above the beds, a closet to his left, and a dresser in the middle of the wall opposite the beds. “That's your bed,” Erin said, pointing to the bed farther from the door, “and this one's mine.”

 

Sixteen

ePub

In late August, the humidity was beginning to abate and the formerly lush green leaves of the oaks and maples seemed dry and tired, readying themselves for the burst of color that announced their own death and the beginning of fall. There were a few days when the air was filled with white fluff carrying the seeds of the cottonwoods. Damien, now at Rose's house for almost two months, was unrestrained in his rapture for Erin. He followed his older brother around the house with his eyes drinking up his every gesture.

Having a brother, for Erin, was an entirely different thing from having a friend. Erin had what others would call friends, but he found little pleasure in spending time with them. He sat with them in the lunchroom and talked with them for a while after school, but he rarely felt glad to see them. Erin was well coordinated and had a natural talent for sports, but he felt bored playing the same games day after day—baseball in the spring and summer, touch football in the autumn, and ice hockey on the frozen ponds in the winter. Erin was a kind and very likable boy. His friends made allowances for him, and accepted the fact that he had his own way of doing things.

 

Seventeen

ePub

Only after Margaret settled into the smaller of the two armchairs in his office did she have a chance to study his face: Hazel eyes, a close-cut white beard, bushy eyebrows, probably in his late sixties, maybe seventy—a kind face, she thought. He nodded in her direction.

“A psychiatrist friend gave me your name. He said that you're the most highly regarded psychiatrist in Chicago.”

“I'm sorry,” he said in a thick French accent.

“Why?”

“I'd hoped it would be a larger area than that.”

Margaret smiled, but was wary of his humor. She didn't like it when people were witty because it was difficult for her to read the intent beneath it.

“Where should we start?”

“Do you want the truth?”

“We could try that.”

“To get some help divorcing my husband.”

“I doubt that.”

“Doubt what?”

“That that's why you're here.”

“You just met me, you know nothing about me or my marriage, and you presume to tell me that that's not why I'm here.”

 

Eighteen

ePub

It had been an unusually cold autumn and early winter, with the first heavy snow in October, and by November the temperature rarely rose above forty degrees. For months on end, the sky was gunmetal gray in the early morning, and seemed to grow only slightly brighter as the day progressed before collapsing back into sooty darkness in the late afternoon.

As Damien waited for Erin after school, he paced back and forth near the bicycle stand atop the hill that overlooked the weathered brick high school building. Damien stopped to look at the bicycle that was attached to the stand by a rusty chain. The bike was a beat-up, black Schwinn that reminded him of the one he'd had when Erin taught him how to ride a bike a few months after he returned to Rose's house. For Damien, where he had lived at that time was “Rose's house,” not “his house.” But now he thought of it as his house, most of the time.

His mind drifted to his life with Margaret and Sybil. As he pictured the house, it had no doors. He wondered where Sybil was living now. It was hard to imagine because Sybil didn't feel real to him; it was as if she had come into this world from nowhere and returned to nowhere when she left. Sometimes he felt she was a ghost who had haunted him, and no one else had ever seen her, not even Margaret.

 

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