The modern marriage has two states, plateau and precipice, and in the winter of our recent crisis—with markets plummeting and even rich folks crying poor; with the dark reign of one tinsel president finally ending, and the promised hope of a new man about to start; yes, with hope rising like a cockamamie kite and fear more common than love—Charlie Pepper forgot his wife.
He didn’t mean to. That much Lena knew. She paused at the kitchen sink on New Year’s Eve morning, the last day of the lousiest year of their lives, and considered what she needed and what she knew. The crab needed to come out of the fridge. What about butter? She’d forgotten candles. She needed another bag of ice. It had been a year since they’d even thought about hosting a dinner. Since then the world fell down one black hole and she and Charlie fell down another; as yet no one had come back. But Obama was taking over in twenty days and Lena had hope. She also had a sick baby and no lettuce. And if years ago Lena and Charlie promised that their hearts would always be in sync, well, it was a fool’s promise, wasn’t it? For now their hearts were a cacophony of chuffing and banging, with Charlie’s motor driving like a great battleship and hers a bubbling alchemist’s pot. Then there were the children’s hearts: Theo’s drum sounded like quick boots pounding up the stairs, while Willa’s was more skittish, the flap-flap of gossamer wings. And there was a third heart so silent it took away sound.
“Usted está mutada en el burro, tiene que seguir,” Glo called, on her way out the door after tending Willa half the night so Lena could sleep. “You’re on the burro, you might as well go.”
In quick-fire Spanish, Lena answered, hoisting the baby onto her shoulder. “The burro is strong. Now why can’t he have an extra pair of hands?”
Glo chuckled, her girlish, brown fingers covering her mouth. Seven years ago, Glo crossed the border at night led by a coyote, leaving her two kids and her mother behind in Guatemala. Every Sunday Glo called home, and sometimes her youngest, Rosella, refused to speak to her. Yet here she was talking of Lena’s burros. It was life, this crazy life, and if you didn’t laugh it broke you. It broke you anyway, but it was better if you laughed.
All day Lena made lists and as she carried Willa up the stairs she started a new one. Butter, candles, ice. If, while working feverishly, Charlie forgot her and the kids, it was never for long. He forgot them repeatedly, at moments, across days, in time. Lena, five years younger but dog-aged in matters of love, likewise misplaced Charlie, with all the worry and push she had to nudge up the road. I ought to write it down: butter, candles, ice, she thought, when Willa started coughing again. Lena ran. Charlie was forty-seven, she was forty-two. They had five years between them and eight years of marriage to their backs and to say they were committed was to say they were in deep.
Yet they missed each other.
And Lena wanted—oh, she wanted—to be touched inside her bones. But Charlie was elsewhere—it might be Uganda, or Boston, or an hour south at the office, or asleep in the bed beside her. Dear Charlie, grinding his jaw.
“Theo,” Lena called, grabbing the newspaper as she pushed down the hall on her heels. “I’ll have the door closed. Come find me, honey. Don’t shout.”
She kicked the bathroom door shut and flipped on the shower. As it roared to life, Lena whispered into Willa’s tiny ear, “That’s it, breathe.”
Willa, ten months old, weighed just eleven pounds. In her short life she had been to the hospital a dozen times. With pneumonia, seizures, surgeries, not to mention those four months at the start. The doctors talked gravely of cognitive delays, and worse. Cerebral palsy was a term sometimes used. Lena stopped her ears. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe, it was that believing took her only so far. What Willa needed, Lena felt sure, was time. Lena’s job was to seize time.
As the steam built, Lena first stripped Willa to her diaper, then peeled off her own sweats down to her panties. Making a bed of towels on the tiled floor, she sat—for the first time all morning—with her knees bent, her back against the wall, showing the cabinets her real face, the face she let no one see. Lena Rusch was irreverent, good-looking, plucky. She had a fine if exhausted brain. This meant she couldn’t always recall the lists she made, or the ends and even the middles of her sentences, but she always started out with a bang. She was a romantic and, worse, an optimist. Fate had forced her to be practical and stolid, too. The two sides rubbed. She was crazy for her children, her friends, chocolate, and news of any kind. She might be crazy for Charlie, too, if she came across him in the daylight once in a while. In other words, Lena Rusch was extraordinarily ordinary: she worked and reared and hardly slept; she began each day prepared for a surprise.
Preemies did best skin to skin. Lena laid Willa’s bare chest like a cloth over her own, and making sure her baby was upright with the world, she gently drummed on the tiny back. Willa moaned, burrowing her face in the cave of Lena’s neck. “Sweetheart,” Lena murmured. “Come on, come on.”
“There you are!” Jesse cried, throwing open the door. They were sisters, and though Jesse was much, much younger, they entered rooms as their mother had taught them, like a storm. “I’ve been shouting a lung out downstairs. Theo finally—”
“Shut the door, you noodle! You’re letting out the steam!”
Jesse did as she was told. But between the blasting shower and the stifling heat, she wouldn’t stay long. “What? Is she sick again?” Jesse folded her arms. “Poor pup. Poor you.”
“Nah. We’re fine.”
Technically they were only half sisters. Jesse, sixteen years Lena’s junior, was the product of a love affair their mother had, one of many, after Lena’s father died. She was as long-limbed and blonde as Lena was curvy and dark. Their mother told everyone that Jesse was helping out with the children until she found a job, but Jesse was a child herself.
“So. What are you wearing tonight?” she asked.
Lena tipped her head against the wall and laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Wear your green dress,” Jesse advised seriously. “It’s about time. And how ’bout I wear your black?”
“Oh, yes.” Lena smiled wistfully. It wasn’t so long ago (in truth, it felt like a minute) that Lena was the one flying out the door to get wasted at high school parties while little Jesse flapped her hands from her bouncy seat. And while that was long ago, Jesse still manipulated like a child—openly, as if she were the only one playing for keeps. Sighing, Lena rubbed circles in Willa’s back. “I gave the black dress to Glo.”
“You what? You gave it to the nanny?”
“Not nanny. Glo.”
Truthfully, Lena would have given Gloria Angelica Cardenas anything—anything—for Glo saved Lena’s sanity every single day. And besides, the rapture on Glo’s face when Lena handed her the box was worth a hundred, maybe a thousand, black dresses. Lena looked up at Jesse, trying to decide if she should take the trouble to explain. But Jesse was looking at herself in the mirror, continuing that frank, daily conversation women have with their faces. “Ugh. New Year’s Eve and no guy. I hate my life!”
Jesse turned. “OK, Miss Veteran. When. When is he going to show up?”
Lena’s grinned slyly. “They always do.”
At last Willa coughed, good and wet. It was enough. Jesse escaped, slamming the door behind her, as Lena put Willa to her breast. They would be there another hour. With one arm hooked under the baby, Lena spread the newspaper across her knees, where the steamy ink would stain her black. She didn’t care. This was the moment she’d been waiting for—her reward being four full pages in the New York Times on Bernie Madoff and his colossal Ponzi scheme. Lena was in awe of Madoff, who, by promising steady returns of eighteen percent, had perpetrated the largest stock fraud in history. He’d swindled at every level, from the Wall Street fat cats, to relatives, to Palm Beach society, to grieving Jewish widows, to the mistress who claimed he had a small penis, to Mort Zuckerman, the media titan, to Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor, to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Yet in the photo on the front page Madoff showed no remorse. He walked the streets, a Jew with a George Washington haircut; he smiled like a shark for the paparazzi.
Her guests arrived all at once. They tossed their coats over the banister and pressed wine and chocolate into Lena’s hands. There was much hugging. Lena made a robust effort to herd them into the living room, but they ignored her, following her into the small kitchen, where they grouped like stupid, happy cows.
“Get the fuck out of here!” she cried, laughing helplessly, but they only smiled and kept on talking. These were the beloveds: Lee Swanson, showing off his new baby blue suede jacket, and Josh Klein, Charlie’s roommates from college, and Sandy, Josh’s wife. When Jesse appeared, having spent the afternoon talking on the phone, tweeting, Facebooking, and smoking a little grass, she made a beeline for Swanson, to tell him that his jacket was his best awful. Laughing, they all agreed.
Meanwhile Lena had four things she couldn’t remember and perhaps one of them was burning in the oven. She was about to check when Vi arrived. Violet Vesuvio, dear Vi, was Lena’s flag of joy, her best friend since they were sixteen, the year they each lost their virginity, one to a girl and one to a boy.
“Oh, god. The fucking traffic.” Vi gripped Lena’s shoulders and looked deeply into her eyes. “What. What is it?”
Lena wrinkled her nose. It had been a day.
“All right. We can fix this,” Vi said. “Start at the beginning. What have you been eating?”
Lena had a deep, womanly, shit-kicking laugh. “Oh, hi, Maude.” Turning, she greeted Vi’s new girlfriend, who appeared to be in costume, a men’s gray suit and fedora. “You look—”
“Rakish?” Maude tipped her head. Maude was a painter, a decent one; her oversize portraits sold best in Santa Fe and Miami. She was large-boned, mannish, with a small, pretty nose. Vi thought she was tremendous.
“Yes, rakish,” agreed Lena, and though undecided about Maude, she hugged her warmly. Everyone was here; they only lacked Charlie. For the next half hour, as she threw dinner together, Lena kept an anxious eye on the door. And when at last Charlie walked through it, she was so startled she nearly dropped a bowl. She plowed into him, backing them into the hall.
“Well, Doctor, I do like to see your face at the end of the year. Remind me, what’s your name?”
“Lena’s husband,” Charlie said, kissing her quickly. He’d been pushing toward this moment for more than two hours in traffic. But now that it was here, and Lena was beside him, Charlie couldn’t slow his molecules enough to enjoy her. Instead, he dropped the bags of butter, lettuce, and ice she’d asked for on the floor. “Hey. Can I talk to you a sec?”
“Sure.” Lena fiddled with his collar. She was pretending to ignore the gray hollows under his eyes and the smudge on his coat. What she wanted was a good kiss. A good kiss could restore them. Didn’t he know? A good kiss could sail them into the New Year just fine. But even as she longed for this, they headed in another direction—she watched with wonder, seeing them go—and instead of saying something romantic she asked, “Did you get the champagne?”
“It’s OK. I screwed up on the groceries, but I remembered the booze!”
“Course.” She frowned. Now, why ask a thing like that? She shook her head and all but moaned. “Charlie, I want it to be … lovely. One night. Can it be lovely?”
She tried her best to smile. “All right. What do you want to tell me?”
For two hours fighting the traffic on 280, Charlie had practiced his lines. I got a call today, out of the blue. He had his speech ready and there would be no deep kisses until he got the words out. Until he came clean. But the way she was looking at him, with those yearning green eyes, well, you’d have to be heartless.
“You look great,” he said, and meant it. The truth was she looked wan and her hair seemed sort of wild. But even a wan, wild-haired Lena was sweet relief.
Lena patted her hair where Charlie’s gaze landed. Did she really look like hell? She wanted so much from the night. If only desire were enough to take them there. “OK,” she declared, brushing his lips with hers. “The bar first, then I need five chairs.”
Klein wiped his plate clean with a hunk of bread. “God, this is good. Lena, what’d you put in the crab?”
“Butter and butter. A touch of garlic.”
“No, something else.”
“Jalapeño. The thinnest of slivers.”
“Jalapeño! You are a witch, Lena-love. Pass that bowl.”
Lena, because she was nursing, had just the one glass, but it burned nicely in her cheeks and in the tops of her ears. She passed the crab to Klein on her right and the salad to Swanson on her left. Now where was Charlie? She looked down the long table, past the winking candles and rosy faces, to the opposite end. He wasn’t there. The thought of Charlie absent caught in Lena’s throat. And just like that she knew something had happened—something more.
She moved a candlestick aside, the panic rising—as if her heart had been zapped and the ceiling dropped lower. Where was he? From the far end of the table Sandy caught Lena’s eye. Sandy was a gynecologist, not a shrink, but since the twins’ birth she’d made it her business to keep tabs on Lena. Worse, Lena knew from Vi that Sandy believed that had she been the doc on call she could have prevented the twins’ early delivery. It was more than Lena could stand. The hubris. The exposed nerve. It wasn’t only her fatigue or pride that Lena didn’t want poked. It was a question of luck and unluck—and the tenderest, most unspeakable sorrow. It was, finally, a question of the heart. Lena’s heart was tired. And a tired heart is a susceptible one.
“Lena, help me here with Swanny,” called Sandy. “The eshag thinks he can cure a chronic sinus infection with amoxicillin!” Eshag was Sandy’s favorite word—Armenian for ass—but she applied it to all her favorites. “See that, Swanny—Lena agrees. Listen to me, esh: you have to go in there with napalm.”
Lena tried to stand but Josh Klein took her hand and pulled her into her seat. “Don’t even think about it,” he said kindly. In the wife department, Josh Klein considered Charlie one lucky dog. Then, too, with the market down fifty percent and no bottom in sight, Klein had been wondering all evening if this wasn’t the end of the world. He decided that was OK. It was OK if the world ended. He would chat with Lena, drink a little more and see if the forecast changed. Last year he’d brought Lena pots of caviar left over from the Goldman Sachs holiday party. This year couldn’t have been more different. A week before Christmas, he’d been forced to fire half of his department—guys and women he’d brought along. His dreams were haunted by their faces. And so Klein filled his and Lena’s glasses to the top. “Talk to me. Where were we?”
Lena smiled dimly.
“Come on, Helena. Pretend there’s no kids, no worries, sex forever. Money? Well, let’s leave money out of it.” Klein squeezed her hand. “What are you excited about? Is it Obama? Of course you love him. You and everyone are in love. The man is going to kill what’s left of the markets, but let’s not go there either. No, not Obama. Too shiny, too glorified. Let’s talk about a real skunk. Bernie—Bernie Madoff.”
Lena blushed. “Kleiny, are you obsessed with him, too?”
“No. I met him once and that cured me. A few years ago a friend of mine was thinking of investing with Bernie. When my pal asked to see a prospectus, Madoff’s people said, ‘Bernie doesn’t do that. It’s a trust thing.’ Please. You know, Lena, there’s a saying, If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
In fact, Josh Klein had been thinking about Bernie Madoff almost as much as Lena had, but for different reasons. For Lena, Madoff’s business was beside the point; it was his motive, his character that intrigued her. For Klein it was just the opposite.
Meanwhile Lena was having what could only be called an inside-outside experience. She was talking with Klein and passing Vi the salt, while her heart searched the house for Charlie.
Lena looked deep into Klein’s soul. “What about Madoff’s sons?”
“Those two? No question. They did exactly what Daddy told them. Bernie wasn’t a guy who rewarded people for using their brains. Did you know that on the day he turned himself in one of the sons’ wives filed divorce papers?” It had been the talk on the street all week.
Klein refilled his glass. He’d drink until there was no more. And as he drank he was thinking, Boy oh boy, Charlie, get your ass back in here. She’s lonely, lonelier than she knows.
“OK. Tell me this,” Klein said. “The wife, Ruth Madoff. Did she know?”
“Kleiny, please.” Lena gave his arm a push. “The wife knows—even if she doesn’t want to know.”
This much Charlie heard. He’d gone upstairs to check on the kids, and come down to get more wine from the garage. He’d been standing in the doorway, behind Lena, long enough to catch the gist. What he heard made him sick at heart. For something indeed had changed: that morning Charlie received a call from someone who could save his faltering company—this man happened to be the one person in the world Lena loathed. Charlie hoped he could explain it to her. But somehow she knew. My god, she knew.
Lena, unaware that Charlie was behind her, kept talking, and in that way dealt with her nerves. She was telling Klein about a woman who got arrested for shoplifting that morning at Whole Foods. “It was terrible. Theo heard the whole thing. The woman, she wasn’t young. Kleiny, here’s the strange part: she was wearing a sable coat.”
“Really? What’d she take?”
“It’s not what.”
“Yo, eshes!” Sandy called, rising from her chair. “Charlie, what are those two conspiring about now?”
“Thieves,” replied Klein. “We’re talking about thieves.”
A sable coat wasn’t something you’d expect to see, not even in January, and certainly not on a bright morning at the grocery store.
Motown blasted over the speakers; the aisles teemed with the holiday harried. Some economic downturn, thought Lena, hitching Willa higher in the sling so she was snug to her chest. Lena took Theo’s hand firmly and, hoping to keep him jolly, pretended they were doing a Viennese waltz as she led him into the crush. But as they took a shortcut down the shampoo aisle, the woman in the coat blocked their way.
“Mama,” Theo said, backing up.
“It’s all right, Theo.”
“Yes, little fellow, I won’t bite,” the woman said.
Something about her looked familiar. Lena guessed that her picture had been in the society pages. She had dyed yellow hair and white powdered skin and black kohl drawn under and above her pale eyes. She wore a large sapphire on her middle finger; her nails were frosted pink.
Unlucky, Lena decided, and she squeezed Theo’s hand to keep him from asking one of the questions she knew wanted to bust out of him. Theo wasn’t wrong to wonder. For despite all that glory, something about the woman signaled that she was past the good times. It wasn’t her saggy coat or shoes exactly, and it wasn’t the forced fact of wearing sable on a clear California morning; nor was it the bad dye job or the contrast she made to the young clerks stationed nearby—short, round girls with their nose piercings and tattoos. It was something else. On New Year’s Eve all she had in her basket was a box of pasta, a jar of marinara sauce and a screw-top bottle of red wine. She was studying a jar of cream, no bigger than a large thimble; she held it between her thumb and index finger.
“It’s called Pot O’ Gold, and they want ninety dollars for it,” she said, looking Lena square in the eye. “Can you imagine?”
Lena could. Even as she rolled her eyes, tsking, “It’s a crime, such a crime”—she could easily believe that a pot of nothing cost ninety dollars, and that this woman was going to steal that jar. There are all kinds of thieves in the world, and one sort always knows the other.
From inside the sling Willa coughed, barky as a seal.
“Oh, that bark!” the woman cried. “It’s a sound you never, ever forget. I remember with my middle boy.” Lena could see now that she was older, in her seventies at least. “Dear, have you dealt with croup before?”
Nodding, Lena slid a protective palm under Willa’s tiny rump and gave Theo’s hand another reassuring squeeze.
“Ah, of course,” the woman said. “Scares the heck out of you, doesn’t it? With my boy, when it got really bad at night, we used to drive him around in the car with all the windows open. The wet air did the trick—calmed him down. Well, it’s always something. Me, I’ve just got to quit being stunned by these prices. And you—Good luck, dears. Happy New Year, all that lala.” The woman waved a jeweled hand as they pressed on.
It was a madhouse at the registers. The lines snaked into the produce aisles and doubled back. Lena and the kids took their place behind two Asian women, sisters no doubt, dressed in leggings and high boots and glossy ponytails that fell down their backs and swished their behinds. To kill time, they were perusing the magazine rack, snapping pages and commenting on the stars, as if they were their old friends. “Look, Madonna. Doesn’t she look better since she left Guy?”
“Hmm. She has excellent skin.”
“Botox up the yinny.”
Their chatter distracted Lena, and it wasn’t until Theo gave a sharp pull on her hand and cried out, “Mama!” that she turned to see the commotion in the Express line.
A security guard had stopped the woman in the fur as she was leaving the store. He demanded that she empty her pockets. Moving ever so slowly, she complied. From the depths of one pocket, she produced a wallet, a bunched silk scarf. Keys.
“Now the other one,” the guard said, opening his palm and wiggling his fingers.
Of course, by now everyone on line was watching—including Theo. Lena looked at her son. Theodore Pepper’s mud-brown eyes were already a bit wild with dark imaginings. Now this. We should all be embarrassed, Lena thought, dread weighting her heart.
It wasn’t the cream after all but a bottle of probiotics.
“Fifty-five bucks,” declared one of the Chinese girls.
“It’s a silly misunderstanding,” the woman explained, her voice unnaturally high. “I put the bottle in my pocket, you see, so it wouldn’t fall out of my basket. I had every intention of paying, of course.” She lifted her chin and sniffed. But despite that little bit of anarchy, the face couldn’t hold. It collapsed. With a world-weary sigh, she searched the crowd for help. “My husband. He needs them for his digestion. The doctor insists, and, well—”
She sighed—the husband, the doctor, all the trouble. “I don’t know what else to say. Honestly, I don’t. You are standing there looking very severe, my fellow. You have to know that I have been an excellent customer since you people first opened these doors.” She seemed to be operating under the assumption that for everyone’s sake this regrettable incident must be put behind them. She looked over her shoulder longingly, toward the parking lot.
The guard held out his palm and once again wiggled his fingers. The gesture was gross and she ignored it, her eyes fixed on the floor.
He dove that large hand into the silk-lined depths of her coat and took out a brick of Parmesan cheese. “Did you think this was gonna jump out of your basket, too?”
“Oh, god,” Lena said.
“Well, I couldn’t be more embarrassed, or feel more stupid,” the woman replied, her shoulders rounding. “No, it’s not possible. You have done your job, young man, no one can blame you for that. Oh, how stupid!”
But the guard didn’t think she was stupid, and he whispered as much in her ear. Her face broke with a fresh horror. “No!” she cried, sagging visibly, as he gripped her elbow, lifting it unnaturally high, and led her, unsteady in her skinny cocktail heels, toward the back of the store.
“Come on,” Lena said, feeling sick inside. She covered her mouth with her hand. Abandoning the cart, she marched them toward the door.
“But Mama—the groceries?”
“Leave them,” she choked. There was nothing certain in Lena’s life, not the bags of ice or the butter, not the credit card on which it would all be charged—not one thing certain, except the lump that was Willa, hung round her neck, and the hot, ardent squeeze of Theo’s paw.
Lena managed to steer them across the parking lot, even as her heart boomed and her legs felt spongy. “You don’t reduce people like that,” she said. “You just don’t.”
When they reached the car, she turned to Theo. He was awfully short and she had no choice but to bend down. This involved a fair act of balancing, what with Willa in the sling and Lena sort of swoony, and Theo himself only a few feet high. Squatting like a sumo wrestler, cursing under her breath, Lena tried to take the worry from her face. There would be no salad at dinner, and without butter the crab would be bone-dry. “Theo, honey. What is it?”
He narrowed his eyes. And weighing his words just like Charlie, his lips moving as he set his thoughts neatly and precisely in a row, he said, “That lady. Are they going to put her in the dungeon?”
“Don’t steal, Theo.” Lena tugged on the bunchy hem of Theo’s jacket.
“I won’t,” he said, pushing her shoulder lightly with his hand. There was something wiggly in Theo’s stomach and his mother was ignoring it. “That lady. Are they gonna … I mean do you think she’s bad? She’s bad, right?”
Squinting hard, Lena tried to think. From the beginning she understood that she didn’t own her children; at best, she hoped to be their worthy shepherd. Besides, Theo had come with his own urgency, an oddball directness, an urgency that had nothing to do with her. Here he was, eyeing her intently, proving that already he possessed all the faces he would ever use in this world—the lover, the worker, the goony bird and, my god, the judge.
“What do you think, Theo?”
“I think most grown-ups would say she’s bad, but you might not.”
Lena smiled. So true, so disarmingly true. She turned away to look across the parking lot. She would have to make it simple for him, to put his mind at ease. For one day soon Theo would know that his mother was also a thief.
Lena Rusch was a thief stealing time.
“Here, Theo. Give me your eyes.”
© 2011 Carol Edgarian