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Skylight Confessions


Ghost Wife

SHE WAS HIS FIRST WIFE, BUT AT THE MOMENT when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time. Arlyn’s father had just died and the funeral dinner had ended only hours earlier. It was a somber gathering: a dozen neighbors seated around the heavy mahogany dining-room table no one had used for over a decade. Now there were pans of macaroni and cheese and a red velvet cake and a huge platter of fruit, food enough to last a month if Arlie had had an appetite.

Arlyn’s father had been a ferryboat captain, the center of her world, especially in his last years; the captain had burned brighter in the grasp of his illness, a shining star in the dark. A usually silent man, he began to tell stories. There were tales of rocks that appeared in the dark, of mysterious reefs whose only purpose seemed to be to sink ferries, of the drowned men he’d known who had never come back. With a red crayon, he drew charts of stars that could lead a lost man home. He told of a tribe who lived on the other side of the water, in far-off Connecticut, who could sprout wings in the face of disaster. They looked like normal people until the ship went down, or the fire raged, and then they suddenly revealed themselves. Only then did they manage their escape.

On his night table there was a collection of stones the captain said he had swallowed when he was a young man; he’d gone down with a ship and had been the lone survivor. One minute he’d been standing on deck, and the next, he’d been above it all, in the sky. He’d fallen hard and fast into the surf of Connecticut, with a mouth and a belly full of stones.

When the doctor came to tell the captain there was no hope, they had a drink together and instead of ice the captain put a stone in the cups of whiskey.

It will bring you good luck, he’d told the doctor. All I want is for my daughter to be happy. That’s all the luck I need.

Arlyn had sobbed at his bedside and begged her father not to leave her, but that was not an option or a choice. The last advice the captain had given her, while his voice still held out, was that the future was an unknown and unexpected country, and that Arlyn should be prepared for almost anything. She had been grief stricken as her father lay dying but now she felt weightless, the way people do when they’re no longer sure they have a reason to be connected to this world. The slightest breeze could have carried her away, into the night sky, across the universe.

Arlyn held on to the porch banister and leaned out over the azaleas. Red and pink flowers, filled with buds. Arlyn was an optimist, despite her current situation. She was young enough not to see a glass as half empty or half full, but as a beautiful object into which anything might be poured. She whispered a bargain, as though her whispering could make it true.

The first man who walks down the street will be my one love and I will be true to him as long as he’s true to me.

She turned around twice and held her breath as a way to seal the bargain. She wore her favorite shoes, ones her father had bought her in Connecticut, leather slippers so light she felt as though she were barefoot. Her red hair reached her waist. She had seventy-four freckles on her face — she had counted — and a long, straight nose her father had assured her was elegant rather than large. She watched the sky darken. There was a line of ashes up above, a sprinkling of chimney soot. Perhaps her father was up there, watching over her. Perhaps he was knocking on his casket, begging to be let out. Or maybe he was here with her still, in her heart, making it difficult for her to breathe whenever she thought about her life without him. Arlie felt her aloneness inside her, but she was hopeful, too. The past was done with. Now she was made out of glass, transparent and clear. She was an instant in time. One damp evening, two stars in the sky, a line of soot, a chattering gathering of neighbors who barely knew her in the dining room. She had convinced herself that her future would arrive on the street where she’d lived her whole life if only she’d wait long enough. If she trusted in fate.

In the living room, people spoke about Arlyn as though she had died right along with her father. She wasn’t a pretty girl, after all, just plain and freckly. She had a high-school diploma and, as far as anyone could tell, no particular skills. One summer she’d worked in an ice-cream shop, and in high school she’d had a dog-washing service, shampooing basset hounds and poodles in the kitchen sink. An ordinary girl all alone in a house where the roof might blow off in the next big storm. People felt pity, but as everyone knew, that wasn’t an emotion that lasted long.

A low horn sounded as the ferry came across the water from Bridgeport; the fact that there would be fog tonight was discussed as the women cleaned up, wiping off the table, putting away the pound cakes and the casseroles before going out to the porch to say good night to Arlyn. It was a heavy, salt-laced fog that had settled, the kind that circled lampposts and street signs and made folks lose their way. A damp, soft night. The neighbors assumed that once they’d left, Arlyn would go inside her empty house. Surely she would walk along the hall where her father’s coats still hung on the rack, then take the flight of stairs the captain hadn’t been able to manage for the past six months. She would edge past his silent room. No more coughing all night long. No more calls for water.

But Arlyn stayed where she was. She was so cold her skin felt like ice; still she remained on the porch. Her father had said to prepare for the future, and Arlyn was ready and willing. Her destiny was sure to come to her in her darkest hour. That was now, this damp, sad night. It took some time, but after three hours Arlie’s faith was rewarded. By then the fog had turned to a light rain and the streets smelled like fish. A car stopped; there was a young man inside, lost, on his way to a party. When he got out to ask directions, Arlyn noticed he was taller than her father. She liked tall men. His hair was combed back. He had beautiful pale eyes, a cool gray color. As he approached he shouted, “Hello.” His voice was not what she expected — flat and nasal. That didn’t matter. Anything could happen now.

Arlyn took a step back in order to study him. Perhaps the young man thought she was afraid — a stranger stopping to talk to her in a banged-up old Saab his dad had given him. He could have been anyone, after all. A murderer, an ex-con, a man who would rip the heart from her chest.

“I’m lost,” the young man explained. Usually he would have kept on driving; he had never in his life stopped to ask for directions. But he was late, and he was the sort of person who was usually on time. Veering from punctuality made him anxious; it made him do stupid things. For instance, he had circled around this particular block twice. Before leaving, he’d forgotten to check to make sure his gas tank was full and now he worried that he wouldn’t be able to find a service station before he ran out.

The young man’s name was John Moody and he was a senior at Yale studying architecture; he recognized Arlie’s father’s house as an Italianate worker’s cottage, built, he would guess, in the 1860s, common in these North Shore towns on Long Island. Not kept up, of course — the roof looked like flypaper, the shingles were badly in need of paint — but charming in a run-down way just as the girl with the long red hair was charming despite her dreadful clothes and the freckles scattered across her pale skin.

Arlyn was wearing an overcoat though it was April.

“You’re freezing,” John Moody said.

Arlyn took this as concern rather than mere statement of fact. The truth was, she was shivering in the cold light of her future, the light that had been cast by this tall young man who had no idea where he was.

Arlyn felt faint. Fluttery, really. Her whole life had been spent in a cocoon; she had been waiting for this hanging globe of an evening. This is when everything else begins. Whatever happens next is where my life will lead me.

John Moody came up the porch steps. Rickety. In need of repair. John took a moment to catch his breath, then spoke.

“I’ve never met the person having the party. My roommate Nathaniel’s sister. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

His heart was pounding uncomfortably hard. His father had had a heart attack earlier in the year. Was he having one, too? Well, he’d never liked speaking to strangers; he’d never liked speaking at all. John Moody was a champion of quiet and order. Architecture meant rules one could depend upon. He was a devotee of the clean line and of truth in form, without frills or complications. He didn’t like messes of any sort.

Arlyn looked over the directions John’s roommate had given him. They were all wrong. “If you want to go to Smithtown, you turn at the corner by the harbor and keep going west. Four towns over.”

“That far?” John Moody had been working hard at Yale throughout the semester, trying to distinguish himself; all at once he felt exhausted. “I didn’t realize I was so tired.”

Arlyn understood. “Sometimes you don’t know how tired you are until you close your eyes.”

There was no rush, was there? Time was suspended; it wasn’t moving at all. They went inside and John Moody lay down on the couch. He had long legs and large feet and he fell asleep easily. He could not remember the last time he’d had a dream. “Just for a minute,” he said. “Until I get my second wind.”

Arlyn sat on a hard-backed chair, still wearing her overcoat, still shivering. She watched John fall asleep. She had the feeling that whatever happened next would be the true test of whether or not they were meant to be. John’s eyelids fluttered; his chest rose and fell. He was a beautiful sleeper, calm, unmoving, peaceful. It felt so right to have him there. The room was littered with chairs that had been pulled into a circle by the visiting neighbors. When Arlyn’s father had been at his worst, in such pain he had to be sedated into sleep, he had moaned and thrashed in his dreams and tore at the bedsheets. Sometimes Arlyn would leave him, just for a short time, for a breath of air, a moment alone. She’d walk down to the harbor and look into the darkness. She could hear the water, but she couldn’t see it; she couldn’t see anything at all. All she’d wanted, then and now, was a man who could sleep. At last he was here.

Arlie left John Moody and went into the kitchen. She hadn’t eaten for three days and she realized she was famished. Arlie went to the refrigerator and took out nearly everything — the tins of baked beans, the homemade strudels, the ham, the sweet-potato pie, the last piece of red velvet cake. She sat at the table and ate three days’ worth of food. When she was finished she went to the sink, filled it with soapy water, and cleaned the pots and pans.

She was so full no one could accuse her of being light-headed. She was rational. No doubt about it. She knew what she was doing. She took off her coat, her black dress, her slip, her underwear, even the soft leather shoes her father had bought her. She turned out the light. Her breath moved inside her ribs like a butterfly. In and out. Waiting. If he walks through the door, my life will begin. And indeed, when John Moody came into the kitchen, time hurtled forward, no longer suspended. He was walking to her, shocked by his good fortune and by the dreaminess of the evening, the extreme weirdness of setting out from Yale as a bored college boy and ending up here, in this kitchen. Arlie looked like a ghost, someone he’d imagined, a woman made of moonlight and milk. The neighbors who thought she was too plain to notice would have been surprised to know that all John Moody could see was Arlie’s beautiful nakedness and her long red hair. He would never have imagined they thought of her as ugly and useless.

As for Arlyn, if nothing ever happened to her again, this would be enough. The way he circled his arms around her, the way the dishes in the dish rack fell to the floor, the good white china in shards and neither one of them caring. She had never been kissed before; she’d been too busy with bedpans, morphine, the practical details of death.

“This is crazy,” John Moody said, not that he intended to stop. Not that he could.

Would he hold this against her, years and years later, how waylaid he’d become? Would he say she tricked him with a rare beauty no one had noticed before? All Arlyn knew was that when she led him to her bedroom, he followed. It was a girl’s bedroom with lace runners on the bureaus and milk-glass lamps; it didn’t even seem to belong to her anymore. The way time was moving, so fast, so intense, made her shudder. She was about to make the leap from one world to the next, from the over and done to the what could be.

Arlyn went forward into time and space; she looped her arms around John Moody’s neck. She felt his kiss on her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. He had been lost and she had found him. He had asked for directions and she had told him which way to go. He was whispering, Thank you, as though she had given him a great gift. Perhaps she had given him exactly that: her self, her future, her fate.

HE STAYED FOR THREE DAYS, THE ENTIRE TIME SPENT IN bed; he was crazy for her, hypnotized, not wanting food or water, only her. She tasted like pears. How odd that was, that sweet green flavor, and even odder that he should notice. John didn’t usually pay attention to people, but he did now. Arlie’s hands were small and beautiful and her teeth were small and perfect as well, but she had large feet, as he did. The sign of a walker, a doer, a person who completed tasks and never complained. She seemed neat and uncomplicated, everything he admired. He did not know her name until the first morning, didn’t learn of her father’s death until the second. And then on the third morning John Moody awoke suddenly from a dream, the first dream he could remember having in many years, perhaps since he was a child. He’d been in the house he’d grown up in, a renowned construction his architect father had built outside New Haven that people called the Glass Slipper, for it was made out of hundreds of windows woven together with thin bands of polished steel. In his dream, John Moody was carrying a basket of pears along the hallway. Outside there was an ice storm and the glass house had become opaque. It was difficult to see where he was going at first, and then impossible.

John was lost, though the floor plan was simple, one he had known his whole life. His father was a great believer in minimalism, known for it, lauded for his straight lines stacked one upon another, as though a building could be made purely from space and glass. John Moody looked down to see why the basket he carried had become so heavy. Everything was odd: the way his heart was pounding, the confusion he felt. Stranger still: the pears in the basket had become flat black stones. Before he could stop them the stones arose without being touched; they hurtled up through the air as though they’d been fired from a cannon, breaking the windows of the Glass Slipper, one after the other. Everything shattered and the sky came tumbling into the house. Cloud and bird and wind and snow.

John Moody awoke in Arlyn’s arms, in a room he did not recognize. There was a white sheet over him, and his chest was constricted with fear. He had to get out. He was in the wrong place; that was all too clear to him now. Wrong time, wrong girl, wrong everything. Next to him, Arlie’s red hair fell across the pillow. In this light, true morning light, it was the color of the human heart, of blood. It seemed unnatural, not a color that he, who preferred muted tones, would ever be drawn to.

Arlie raised herself onto one elbow. “What?” she said sleepily.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

John Moody already had his pants on and was searching for his shoes. He was supposed to be in class at that very moment. He was taking conversational Italian, planning to travel to Florence during the summer between graduation and his advanced-degree program in architecture. He would stand in great halls, see what the masters had accomplished, sleep dreamlessly through still, black nights in a small hotel room.

Arlyn tried to pull him close. But he was bending down, out of reach, retrieving his shoes from beneath the bed.

“Go back to sleep,” John told her. All those freckles he hadn’t noticed in the dark. Those thin, grasping arms.

“Will you come back to bed?” Arlie murmured. She was half-asleep. Love was stupefying, hypnotizing, a dream world.

“I’ll watch you,” John said.

Arlyn liked the sound of that; she may have smiled. John waited till she was asleep, then he left her. He hurried along the stairs Arlyn’s father hadn’t been able to get down, then went through the empty hall. There was dust in every corner, black mourning ribbons still tied on the backs of the chairs, bits of plaster trickling from the ceiling. He hadn’t noticed any of that before; everything fell down and fell apart once you looked closely.

Once John got outside, the fresh air was a jolt. Blessed air; blessed escape. There was a field behind the house, overrun with black-eyed Susans, tall grass, and weeds. In daylight, the cottage had very little charm; it was horrible, really. Someone had added on a dormer and an unattractive side entrance. The paint was a flat steamship gray. Disgraceful what some people thought of as architecture.

John prayed his car would start. As soon as it did, he made a U-turn and headed back to the ferry, counting to a hundred over and over again, the way men who avoid close calls often do. One, get me out of here. Two, I beg of you. Three, I swear I will never stray again. And so on, until he was safely on board the ferry, miles and leagues away, a safe and comfortable distance from a future of love and ruin.

When Arlyn woke all she heard was the silence. It was a while before she realized he was truly gone. She looked through the empty rooms, then sat on the porch, thinking maybe he’d gone to the coffee shop to fetch them breakfast, or to the florist for a dozen roses. No sight of him. No sound. At noon she walked down to the harbor, where Charlotte Pell in the ticket office was quick to recall the man Arlyn described. He had taken the nine-thirty ferry to Bridgeport. He’d been in such a hurry, he hadn’t even waited for his change.

It took two weeks for Arlyn to think the situation through. Another woman might have cried, but Arlyn had cried enough to last a lifetime during her father’s illness. She believed a bargain was a bargain and that things happened for a reason. She was a planner and a doer, just as John Moody had suspected from the size of her feet. She found out where he lived by calling the Yale housing office and saying she was a shipping service ordered to deliver a basket of fruit. It was not a lie exactly; she planned to bring pears with her. John had said she tasted like pears, and she imagined just the mention of that fruit was now meaningful to them both.

Arlyn was not a liar by nature, but she was a dreamer. She believed there was an ending to all stories, a right and proper last page. Her walk back from the ferry ticket office was not the ending. Not yet.

It took two weeks to settle matters. She cleaned out the attic and the basement, selling odds and ends at a yard sale, then put the house on the market in order to pay off her father’s outstanding medical bills. In the end she had very little: a thousand dollars and so few belongings she could pack them into a single suitcase. Her neighbors threw her a good-bye party at the coffee shop across from the ferry terminal. Those same neighbors who had imagined she had no prospects were happy to drink to Arlyn’s new life. She was a good girl, after all, and everyone deserved a chance, even Arlie. Over a lunch of oysters and macaroni and cheese and egg-salad sandwiches the neighbors all wished her luck. Exactly where she was going, no one asked. That was the way the future worked. People often disappeared right into it and all anyone could do was hope for the best.

ARLYN TOOK THE FERRY TO BRIDGEPORT, THEN THE TRAIN to New Haven. She felt sure of herself at the start of her travels, anxious by the time she reached the university. When she got out of the taxi, she went behind some rhododendrons and vomited twice, then quickly put a mint in her mouth so that her kiss would be fresh. There was nothing to go back to, really, so being nervous wasn’t an option.

John Moody was studying for exams. He had the feeling Arlyn might track him down and he’d had the jitters long before his roommate Nathaniel came to tell him he had a red-haired visitor. Ever since John had returned from Long Island he’d been dreaming. That in itself was a bad sign. He couldn’t get rid of his nightmares; therefore, he refused to allow himself to sleep. He was flat-out exhausted; if he wasn’t careful he’d ruin his grade-point average. His dreams were filled with disasters, wrong turns, and mistakes. Now one had come knocking at his door.

“Tell her I’m not here,” he said to Nathaniel.

“You tell her. She’s waiting in the hall.”

John closed his books and went downstairs, and there she was, shockingly real, flesh and blood, nervous, freckled, carrying a basket of fruit.

“John,” she said.

He took her arm and led her away. They stood in the hallway, near the mailboxes. “Look, I’ve got exams. I don’t know if you understand how difficult my courses are.”

“But I’m here. I took the ferry.”

John thought she really wasn’t very bright. And she had a suitcase with her. John picked up the suitcase and signaled to Arlyn. She followed him outside, around to the rear of the dormitory, so no one would see. The fact that she wasn’t angry with him made him feel he was the one who actually had a right to profess some injury. If you looked at the situation from a certain point of view, he was the wronged party. Who the hell did she think she was, appearing this way? Screwing up his study hour?

“I haven’t got time for this,” John said, as though speaking to a cat that had strayed into the yard. “Go home, Arlyn. You have no business being here.”

“We’re supposed to be together.” Arlyn tilted her face up. She had such a serious expression. She hadn’t yet turned eighteen. There was hope all over her; she smelled of it.

“Oh, really? How did you come up with that one?”

In the shadows of the rhododendrons John could barely see how freckled her skin was. She was so young, after all, and it was flattering that she’d come after him this way. She’d chased him down, hadn’t she? She had that lovelorn look on her face. He couldn’t remember ever having seen such certainty.

“Only until tomorrow,” he said. “Then you have to go home.”

She picked up the suitcase and followed him back inside. She didn’t tell him she had sold her father’s house and everything in it. She didn’t announce that all of her belongings had been packed into that one suitcase. All right, John didn’t seem as happy about their future together as Arlyn had thought he’d be, not yet. But he wasn’t the sort to be rushed into anything.

Once in his room, he did let her sit in the easy chair and watch while he studied. She understood he needed quiet; she even went out to get him some supper, a corned-beef sandwich and some hot, black coffee. When he was through with his books, she was there for him in bed, so sweet, so much like a dream. He gave in to it one last time. A good-bye to her, that’s what it was. The sex was even hotter; he was in a fever, he was acting like a man in love. But as soon as he fell asleep there were those nightmares again, houses falling down, broken windows, streets that never ended, women who held on and refused to let go. Nothing good could come of this. John got out of bed and quickly dressed, though it was dark, hours before his classes. He didn’t care whether or not his socks matched. The basket of fruit on his desk smelled overripe, rotten. He left a note on his desk — Gone to take exam. Have a good trip home.

Frankly, when he did go to class later in the morning, he did terribly on his Italian exam. He could not think of the word for water or book or bowl. His heart started pounding again — the heart-attack feeling he’d had the last time he was with Arlyn. Maybe it was panic. He simply had to get away. He was afraid she would be waiting for him, there in his bed, and that somehow he’d be mesmerized into wanting her again. Because of this he never went back to the dorm. He went straight from class to his car. He stopped at a bar on the way out of town and had some beers; his hands were shaking. He’d made an error in judgment, nothing more. Nothing he had to pay for for all eternity. He got back into the Saab and headed toward his parents’ house, outside Madison, counting all the way: One, no one will find me. Two, I am free. Three, I owe her nothing. Four, it will all disappear like a dream.

The roommate, Nathaniel, was the one who told Arlyn that John often went home on the weekends. Nathaniel had found Arlyn back in the hall, late in the day, her suitcase beside her, in tears when she realized John had disappeared. Arlyn explained that she’d sold her father’s house and had nowhere to go. Nathaniel had never liked John Moody, he thought of him as a selfish, spoiled prick, so it was a pleasure to give Arlyn a ride to John’s family’s house. In fact, they made such good time taking back roads that Arlyn was dropped off in the driveway half an hour before John Moody arrived, a bit more drunk than he’d thought.

Arlyn was in the kitchen with his mother, chatting and cutting up carrots for the salad. John spotted her as he walked across the lawn. It was just the way he had dreamed it. The glass house. The woman who wouldn’t let go. He felt as though everything that was now happening had already happened in some dark and dreamy otherworld over which he had no control. There were thirty windows in the kitchen and all he could see of Arlyn was her red hair. He thought of pears and he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten all day. Just those beers. He was tired. He’d been working too hard and thinking too much and he’d hardly slept. Perhaps there was such a thing as fate. Perhaps this was all part of the natural order of things, the rightness of the future, a grid of devotion and certainty. He went around the back, just as he had when he was a little boy, in through the kitchen door, shoes clattering on the tile floor, shouting out, “Anyone home? I’m starving.”

THEY LIVED IN AN APARTMENT ON TWENTY-THIRD STREET, in a large studio with a sleeping alcove five floors above the street. The baby’s crib was in a corner of the living room/ dining room; a double bed filled up the entirety of the tiny ell of the alcove. It was never fully dark, which was probably just as well. Arlyn was up at all hours, feeding the baby, walking back and forth with him so as not to wake John, who was in graduate school at Columbia, and so she noticed things other people might not. Dark things, sleepwalker things, things that kept you up at night even if there happened to be a few moments of quiet. Two in the morning on Twenty-third Street was dark blue, filled with shadows. Arlyn had once seen a terrible fight between lovers while she nursed the baby. The baby hiccuped as he fed, as though Arlyn’s milk was tainted with someone else’s misery. The man and woman were in a doorway across the street, slugging each other with closed fists. The blood on the sidewalk looked like splatters of oil. When the police came roaring up, the couple had suddenly united and turned their venom on the officers, each swearing the other hadn’t done anything wrong, each willing to fight to the death for the partner who had moments ago been cursed and abused.

Arlyn’s baby, Sam, had dark hair and gray eyes like John. He was perfect. Small perfect nose and not a single freckle. He had a calm disposition and rarely cried. It wasn’t easy living in such close quarters when John had so much studying to do, but they managed. Hush little baby, Arlyn whispered to her son, and he seemed to understand her. He stared at her with his big gray eyes, her darling boy, and was silent.

John’s parents, William and Diana, were discriminating and somewhat reserved, but Diana was thrilled with her grandson; because of this the elder Moodys came to accept Arlyn. She wasn’t the daughter-in-law of their dreams — no college degree, no talents to speak of — but she was sweet and she loved their son and, of course, she’d given them Sam. Diana took Arlyn shopping and bought so many outfits for Sam he outgrew most of them before he ever managed to wear them; Arlie had to stack them on the topmost shelf of the closet, still in their wrappers.

No matter how good the baby was, John had little patience for him. Diana assured Arlie that the men in their family were all like that when it came to children. That would change when Sam could throw a baseball, when he was old enough to be a son rather than a baby. Arlyn was easily convinced of things that she wanted to believe and her mother-in-law was so sure of herself that Arlyn assumed John’s attitude would indeed change. But as Sam grew, John seemed even more annoyed by his presence. When the baby came down with chicken pox in his eighth month, for instance, John moved into a hotel. He could not bear to hear the whimpering, and he himself was at risk, having never had the disease. He stayed away for two weeks, phoning once a day, so distant he might have been millions of miles away rather than thirty blocks uptown.

It was then, alone in the darkened apartment, bathing the fretting baby in the kitchen sink with oatmeal and Aveeno to soothe his red, burning skin, that the bad thought first occurred to Arlyn. Maybe she’d made a mistake. Was it possible that on the night of her father’s funeral she should have waited to see who was the next person to come down the street? She felt guilty and disloyal for thinking this, but once it had been imagined — this other man, this other life — she couldn’t stop. At the park, on the street, she looked at men and thought, Maybe it should have been him. Maybe I have made a terrible error.

By the time Sam was two, she was quite sure she had. Her fate was out there somewhere, and she had wrongly stumbled into another woman’s marriage, another woman’s life. John was finished with graduate school and now worked at his father’s firm, complaining about being the low man despite his talent, a junior partner called upon to do everyone’s dirty work, never given the freedom to truly create. He was often gone, commuting in reverse, back and forth to the office in Connecticut, staying overnight at an old friend’s in New Haven.

Arlyn was teaching Sam his ABCs. He was a quick learner. He studied her mouth as she made the letter sounds and didn’t try himself until he could repeat each letter perfectly. Sam clung to Arlyn, never wanting to play with the other children in the park. When his father came home, Sam refused to speak; he wouldn’t show off his ABCs, wouldn’t sing his little songs, wouldn’t answer when John called his name. John had begun to wonder if they should have him looked at by a doctor. Something was wrong with the boy. Maybe he had a problem with his hearing or his vision. But Arlyn knew John was mistaken. That wasn’t the problem. She and Sam were in the wrong place with the wrong man; she knew it now, but how could she say it out loud? The wrongness of things had grown from a notion to the major fact of her life. She should have waited. She should have stayed where she was until she was truly sure of the future. She shouldn’t have been so foolish, so hopeful, so young, so damn sure.

Every month or so, Arlyn took Sam on the train out to Long Island. Sam was refusing to eat anything but peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, so Arlie always made several to bring along. Sam loved the train; he made choochoo noises and chattered all the way. Arlyn thought about recording him, and presenting John with the tape, saying, So there! There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s all you! But she had the strange feeling that if John reversed his opinion and discovered that his son wasn’t worthless, he might try to steal him in some way and cut her out of Sam’s life, so Arlie never made that tape. She never encouraged John to spend more time with Sam. She kept her one bit of joy to herself.

When the train reached their station, they walked down the hill until the harbor and the ferry were in sight. On windy days there were whitecaps and the water hit against the wooden pilings. On clear days everything looked like glass, the blue sky and even bluer sound, and the hazy outline of Connecticut, so far away. There was another family living in Arlyn’s old house. She and Sam would often stand on the corner and watch the new children play. A boy and a girl. They played kickball in the street and climbed up the maple tree and picked azalea buds when they bloomed and stuck the red and pink blossoms in their hair.

Sometimes the children’s mother called them in for dinner. When she came out to the porch, she would notice a red-haired woman and a toddler staring. The new owner of the house would then hurry her children inside; she’d stand behind the curtain, watching, making sure nothing funny was going on. A stalker or a kidnapper or something like that. But no, the strangers just stood there on the corner, even on cold, windy days. The red-haired woman wore an overcoat she’d had for years, thick, gray wool, very unstylish. The child was quiet, not one of those squirming, yowling types. A dark-haired serious boy and his loving mother. Sometimes they’d be there for over an hour, the woman pointing out the catalpa trees, the sparrows, the streetlights, the porch, the little boy repeating the words. They laughed as though everything were a marvel in this run-down neighborhood. All common objects no normal person would bother to take note of, unless she was a woman who thought she’d made a terrible mistake, someone who came back again and again, hoping that if she just walked down the same street fate would whirl her backward in time until she was once more seventeen, when the future was something she had not yet stepped into, when it was just an idea, a moment, something that had not disappointed her yet.

MAY IN CONNECTICUT WAS LUSCIOUS, SO GREEN IT WAS like a waking dream. Oriole, mockingbird, mock orange, birdsong. In a glass house the green was everywhere. There was no need for carpets, only bare ash floors; no curtains, only the lilacs, the rhododendrons, and yard after yard of boxwood, a hedge of nubby velvet. They had come to live in the Glass Slipper after John’s father had had a second heart attack and the older Moodys had moved to Florida. When William Moody passed, Diana stayed on there; the warm weather was better for her arthritis.

How odd that nearly two years later Arlyn still missed her mother-in-law. Someone who cared about her child. Someone who understood that a person living in a glass house could easily become obsessed with the oddest things: stones, birds mistaking windows for thin air, deer running into the sliding doors, hail, windstorms. Glass needed constant care, after all. Rain splatters, sticky sap, falling leaves, pollen. John had hired a service to wash the windows once a week. Arlyn always did it wrong, at least in John’s opinion. There were smudges when she did the cleaning herself; she could not reach the tops of some windows even when she dragged out the longest ladder from the garage.

The window cleaner came in a truck marked Snow Brothers. Arlyn often watched — it was always the same man, short, stocky, serious about his work. She could not help wondering what had happened to the other Snow brother, if he’d died, or run away.

Arlyn wore her red hair twisted, put up with tortoiseshell combs. It was an old-fashioned style; she believed that her mother, who died when Arlie was a toddler, wore her hair this way. At twenty-four, Arlyn herself felt old. After she sent Sam off for the morning, walking him down the lane to the bus stop so he could go off to nursery school, she usually came back to the house and slipped into bed with her clothes on. Sometimes she didn’t bother to take off her shoes, the old leather slippers her father had bought her, which were by now falling apart. She’d had them resoled twice, but the leather itself was shredding. Whenever she wore them she remembered that the entire time her father had been a ferryboat captain, nearly twenty years, he never stayed a single night in Connecticut. It’s a far-off country, he would say of the place where she now lived. Those people with wings keep them folded up, under their suits and dresses, but at the right moment, just when they need to fly, the wings unfurl and off they go. They never go down with the ship — they lift off at the very last moment. When everyone else is sinking into the sea, there they go, up to the clouds.

Wherever she went, Arlyn found herself searching for such people, in the treetops, at the market, on telephone poles. She felt light in some strange way; disconnected from roads and grass, from everything on earth. She herself would have chosen a raven’s wings, deep blue-black feathers, shimmering and strong. Once she went up to the roof of the garage and stood there, feeling the wind, wishing that her father’s stories were true. She closed her eyes until the urge to jump passed. She had to remind herself that her child would be getting off the school bus at two, that he’d expect her to be waiting, and that no matter how she felt inside she must be there, holding a bunch of lilacs she had picked as she walked down the lane.

Sam continued to surprise her with how special he was. Today, for instance, when she picked him up at the bus stop he said, “I hate school.”

“No, you don’t.” Had she made him feel too special, as John often accused her of doing?

“Everyone has to stand in a straight line or we can’t go to recess and I’m not everyone.”

“Well, everyone is someone special,” she told Sam.

“But the rules don’t bother everyone.”

“We all do things we don’t want to do.” Was this what she wanted her son to believe?

They walked home hand in hand.

“Daddy doesn’t like me.” They had reached the turn where the largest hedge of lilacs was. They could see the roof of the Glass Slipper. You had to know it was there to see it, otherwise you would look right through it into the clouds.

We could hide here, Arlie wanted to say as they passed by the hedges. We could never come out again. Not till our wings grew. Not till we could fly away.

“Every daddy loves his little boy,” Arlyn said.

Sam looked at her. He was only five and he trusted her, but now he didn’t seem so sure. “Really?” he said.

Arlyn nodded. She certainly hoped so. When they walked up the driveway, Arlyn was thinking about how tired she was. All the while her father was sick she didn’t sleep through the night and then when Sam was a baby she had sat up to watch over him. The exhaustion hadn’t left her.

Every time she’d heard her father cough or moan she was on her feet, ready before he called for her. She knew her father loved her; he showed it in the way he looked at her when she brought him water, or his lunch tray, or a magazine to read aloud. She had always been certain of her father’s love; the same wasn’t true for Sam and his father.

Maybe tonight Arlyn would dream about her father and he would tell her what to do. Stay or fly away. Tell John what she truly wanted or go on as they had been, living separate lives under the same glass roof, pretending to be something they weren’t, pretending that all little boys’ daddies were too busy to care.

She and Sam continued down the drive until the Glass Slipper was right in front of them. All at once Arlie realized how much she hated it. It was a box, a cage, a trap that couldn’t be pried open. It’s not an easy place to live, her mother-in-law had told Arlyn when she first moved in. It seems to attract birds. True enough, there on the steel-edged roof a cadre of blackbirds called wildly. Oh, they would surely make a mess. John would be able to see their shit and feathers from the living room whenever he looked up and he’d be furious. One more thing that was imperfect, just like Arlyn herself. Arlyn guessed she would have to drag out the ladder so she could climb up and clean the glass, but then she saw something odd. A man with wings. One of the Connecticut people her father had spoken of. Such creatures were real after all. Arlie felt something quicken inside. The man on the roof was standing on one leg, like a stork. One of the Snow brothers, not the usual one, but the younger brother, flapping his coat thrown over his shoulders, scaring all the blackbirds away. He was tall and blond and young.

“Boo,” he shouted. Scallops of sunlight fell across his face. “Get into the sky where you belong!”

Arlyn stood on the grass and applauded.

When the window washer turned to her he was so surprised to see a red-haired woman grinning at him, he nearly slipped on the glass. Then Arlyn would have seen if he really could fly, or if like any mortal man he would simply crash and splinter.

JOHN MOODY LEFT THE HOUSE AT SIX IN THE MORNING AND didn’t come home again until seven thirty or eight in the evening, often missing dinner, just as often missing his son, whose bedtime was at eight. Not that Sam was necessarily asleep; after being tucked in, he often lay in bed, eyes wide open, listening to the sound of tires on the gravel when his father came home. John was usually in a foul temper at the end of the workweek, so Arlyn had a standing arrangement with Cynthia Gallagher, their new neighbor and Arlyn’s new best friend, to come over on Fridays for drinks and dinner. Cynthia was having her own problems with her husband, Jack, whom she referred to as Jack Daniels, for all the drinking he did. Arlyn had never had a best friend and she was giddy with the intimacy. Here was someone she could be real with.

“Oh, fuck it all,” Cynthia was fond of saying when they went out shopping and something was particularly expensive and she wanted to encourage Arlyn to loosen up. Cynthia had delicate bone structure; she was attractive and dressed well, and she certainly knew how to curse and drink. “If we don’t have a good time, who will?”

Cynthia had a way of cheering things up. She wore her brown hair straight to her shoulders and she looked young, even though she was several years older than Arlyn. Maybe it was the fact that Cynthia was free. She had no children, and had confided she didn’t think Jack Daniels had it in him to produce any progeny, though he’d sworn he’d been to the doctor to be tested; he vowed that he was, as Cynthia put it, positively filthy with sperm.

Cynthia was daring and fun. She could snap John Moody out of a bad humor in an instant. “Get yourself a glass of wine and get out here,” she’d call to him when he came home from work on Fridays, and he would. He’d actually join them on the patio and tell stories that had them laughing about his idiot clients whose main concern was often closet space rather than design. Watching John in the half-light of spring, with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, Arlyn remembered how she had felt the first time she saw him, back when he was lost and she was so dead set on finding him.

John went to the kitchen to fetch some cheese and crackers and freshen their drinks. “And olives, please!” Cynthia called after him. “God, I love your husband,” Cynthia told Arlie.

Arlyn blinked when she heard that remark. There was a scrim of pollen in the air. She stared at Cynthia: her pouty mouth, her long eyelashes.

“Not like that!” Cynthia assured her when she saw the expression on Arlyn’s face. “Stop thinking those evil thoughts. I’m your friend, honey.”

Friends as different as chalk and cheese. They disagreed on politics and people, on fashion and homemaking. More than anything, they disagreed on Sam.

“You should have him tested,” Cynthia always said, just because he liked to be alone and preferred playing with blocks to making friends, because he didn’t speak in the presence of strangers, because of the look of concentration Cynthia mistook for an odd, troubling detachment. “Something is off. And if I wasn’t your friend I wouldn’t bother to tell you.”

Well, Arlie had finally had him evaluated and it turned out Sam had a near-genius IQ. There was some concern over one of the tests; Sam had refused to answer the series with the pictures, he’d just put his head on the psychologist’s desk and hummed, pretending he was a bee. What on earth was wrong with that? Sam was imaginative and creative, too much so for silly personality tests. And a little boy had a right to be tired, didn’t he?

“You’re going to have problems with him,” Cynthia warned. “He’s pigheaded. He lives in his own world. Wait till he’s a teenager. He’s going to drive you crazy. Trust me, I know big trouble when I see it.”

It was the beginning of the end of Arlie’s friendship with Cynthia. She didn’t let on that she was disenchanted for quite a while, not even to herself. But the damage was done. Arlyn could not value someone who didn’t value Sam. And now that the blindfold was off, Arlie couldn’t help noticing how flirtatious Cynthia was. All at once she saw the way John looked at their neighbor during their Friday evening drink time. People thought because Arlie was young and freckled and quiet that she was stupid. She was not. She saw what was going on. She saw plenty.

They were playing a game around the table when she first understood what was happening. I spy with my little eye. John had gone first and Cynthia had guessed correctly. John had “spied” the tipped-over pot of red geraniums. Then it was Cynthia’s turn. She was looking at John’s tie, a pale gray silk, the color of his eyes. She spied something silver. Something that was very attractive, she said. Cynthia had sounded a little drunk, and much too friendly. She had a grin on her face that shouldn’t have been there, as though she knew John Moody wanted her.

Arlyn glanced away. Even if nothing much had happened yet, it would. Arlie stared upward and noticed Sam at his window. He waved to her, as though they were the only two people in the world, his arm flapping. She blew him a kiss, up into the air, through the glass.

Maybe that was the day when Arlyn left her marriage, or maybe it happened on the afternoon when she ran into George Snow at the market. He was buying apples and a sack of sugar. Her cart was full of groceries.

“Is that what you eat?” Arlyn said to him. George was ahead of her in the checkout line. “Don’t you have anyone who takes care of you?”

George Snow laughed and said if she came to 708 Pennyroyal Lane in two hours she would see he didn’t need taking care of.

“I’m married,” Arlyn said.

“I wasn’t asking to marry you,” George said. “I was just going to give you a piece of pie.”

She went. She sat outside 708 for twenty minutes, long enough for her to know she shouldn’t go in. At last George came out to the car, his collie dog, Ricky, beside him. He came around to talk to her through the half-open window. Arlyn could feel the mistake she was about to make deep in her chest.

“Are you afraid of pie?” George Snow said.

Arlyn laughed.

“I didn’t use anything artificial, if that’s what you’re worried about,” George said.

“I’d have to know you a lot better to tell you what I’m afraid of,” Arlyn told him.

“Okay.” George just stood there. The dog jumped up and barked, but George didn’t seem to notice.

Arlyn got out of the car. She felt ridiculously young and foolish. She hadn’t even brought the groceries home before she went to Pennyroyal Lane; she’d just driven around as though she were looking for something and couldn’t quite recall what, until she found herself on his street. By the time she did get home, half of what she’d bought at the grocery was ruined; the milk and the cottage cheese and the sherbet had leaked through their containers. But George had been right. He made a great apple pie. He listened to her when she talked. He fixed her a cup of tea. He did all those things, but it was Arlyn who kissed him. She was the one who started it all, and once she had, she couldn’t stop.

Sometimes Arlie would go to his house on Pennyroyal Lane, but she was afraid of getting caught. More often she drove out to meet George at a public landing at the beach while Sam was at school. She never let it interfere with Sam; never let her affair with George affect Sam in any way. It was her secret life, but it felt realer than her life with John ever had.

George’s collie loved nothing more than to run at the beach. They’d chase the seagulls away, running and shouting, then George would throw stones into the sea.

“I’m afraid of stones,” Arlyn admitted. She didn’t want things to break and fall apart any sooner than they had to. She thought of the stones on her father’s night table from the time he’d almost drowned. She thought of the house she lived in now, made of a thousand windows.

“Afraid of a stone?” George had laughed. “If you ask me, it makes more sense to be afraid of an apple pie.”

George had the blondest hair Arlyn had ever seen and brown eyes. His family had lived in town for two hundred years; everybody knew him. For a while, he had left window washing to start a pet store, but he was too kindhearted. He gave away birdseed and hamster food at half price, he was bad at figures, and the business had failed. Reopening the pet store was his dream, but George had a practical nature. He did what needed to be done. He was a man who fulfilled his responsibilities, and his brother had asked him to come back to the family business. That was why he was up on her roof the day Arlie met him, working at a job he hated, although Arlyn secretly believed it was fate that had put him there. Her true fate, the one that had gotten misplaced on the night John Moody got lost, the future she was meant to have, and did have now, at least for a few hours a week.

When Arlyn went to the dry cleaner or to the post office, when she went anywhere at all, she felt like standing up and shouting, I’m in love with George Snow. Everyone most likely would have cheered — George was well thought of. Good for you! they would have said. Excellent fellow. Much better than that son of a bitch you’re with. Now you can right what’s wrong in your life!

She couldn’t stay away from George. When they made love in the back of his truck, or at his house on Pennyroyal Lane, Arlyn couldn’t help wondering if he was one of those Connecticut people in her father’s stories who had unexpected powers. But she knew that such people always waited until the last moment, until the ship was going down or the building was burning, before they revealed themselves and flew away. Whether or not they could bring anyone with them was impossible to know until that dire moment when there was no other choice but flight.

Although Arlie had never imagined herself to be the sort of woman who had an affair, lying was easier than she’d thought it would be. She would say she was going to the market, the post office, a neighbor’s, the library. Simple, really. She brought along a clothes brush so none of George’s collie’s long hair would stick to her slacks or her skirts and give her away. Not that John was looking for evidence of her betrayals; most of the time, he wasn’t looking at her at all. Whenever Arlyn thought about George, while she fixed eggs for Sam’s breakfast or raked leaves, she did not smile, not unless she was certain she was alone. Then she laughed out loud. For the first time in a long time, she felt lucky.

The only one who knew about them was Steven Snow, George’s older brother, and then only by accident. Steven had stumbled upon them in bed, as he shouted out, “Hey, Geo. You’re supposed to be working at the Moodys’, get your lazy ass out of bed.” Steven had stopped in the doorway as they pulled apart from each other. He saw her red hair, her white shoulders, his younger brother moving the sheet to hide her.

They dressed and came into the kitchen, where Steven was having a cup of instant coffee. It had been three months since the day she’d first seen George on the roof. By now they were too much in love to be embarrassed.

“Big mistake,” Steven said to his brother. And then, without meeting Arlyn’s eyes, he added, “For both of you.”

They didn’t care. No one ever had to know, except for Steven, who didn’t talk much to anyone and was a quiet, trustworthy man. They went on with their secret life, the life Arlie had once imagined as she had stood out on her porch. They did crazy things as time wore on. Did they think they were invisible? That no one would figure it out? They went swimming naked in the pond behind the dairy farm. They made love in the Moodys’ house, in Arlyn and John’s very own bed, with all that glass around so that anyone might see, the birds traveling overhead, the telephone repairman, anyone at all. After a while, Arlyn forgot to hide how happy she was. She sang as she raked; she whistled as she went down the aisles in the market looking for asparagus and pears.

And then one morning as she walked back from the school-bus stop, Arlyn happened to meet up with Cynthia, who was out for a run. Arlie had taken to avoiding her former friend. If she’d ever really been a friend. That was questionable now. All those glances between Cynthia and John. A woman with her own secrets had no business with an untrustworthy ally. Arlie hid in the bathroom if Cynthia dropped by. If Cynthia phoned, Arlie made excuses, often ridiculous — she had a splinter in her foot, she was dizzy from the heat, she had lost her voice and had to squawk out her apologies. As for those Friday get-togethers, there was no reason to sit through those farces anymore. In fact, Arlyn arranged for Sam to take recorder lessons on Fridays; hours in the waiting room at the music school listening to the cacophony of student musicians was preferable to seeing Cynthia.

“What do you know — you’re still alive,” Cynthia said when they met up on the road.

“I’ve been so busy.” Arlyn sounded false, even to herself. She looked down the lane. She wished she could start running, past the Glass Slipper, all the way to George’s, a place where she could be herself, if only for a little while. She was shivering, though it was a warm day. She didn’t like Cynthia’s expression.

“I’ll bet you’ve been busy.” Cynthia laughed. “Guess what a little birdie told me about you? In fact, all the little birdies are talking about it.”

Arlie disliked Cynthia more than she would have thought possible. Everything about Cynthia was repellent: her tan, her white T-shirt, the blue running shorts, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“I guess you’re not the good girl you pretend to be,” Cynthia went on. “Even if we’re not friends anymore, I didn’t think I’d be the last to know.”

“You’re clearly mistaken.” Arlie could feel something inside her quicken. A panic, a flutter, a lie.

“Am I? Everyone’s seen George Snow’s truck parked at your house. You’re lucky I haven’t told John.”

“Don’t act as though you’re so above it all,” Arlie said. “You’ve been after John from the start. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Actually, I do. All we’ve done is flirt. Unlike you and George. I heard you do him in his truck in a parking lot down at the beach.”

Arlyn felt dizzy. Had this really been her best friend, the woman she’d confided in, invited to her home each and every Friday?

“If I got my windows washed as often as you did, the glass would be worn away,” Cynthia said. “Sooner or later you’re going to get caught, baby girl.”

She wouldn’t want to face off against John in divorce court. He might try to take away everything she cared about for spite. Even Sam. Then what would she do? Arlie must have turned even paler, her freckles standing out like a pox. She thought of the sort of war John might wage if he was angry enough, if Cynthia stoked his fury. Arlie began to imagine a custody battle, a lost little boy.

“Don’t worry. I haven’t told him.” Cynthia seemed able to see right through her. “He’s not home enough to notice anything, is he? But all of us gals on the road have been keeping track. We meet once a week to discuss your progress as a liar. Who would have thunk it? Little Arlie. Enjoy it while you can. I plan to be there for John when he needs me. Whenever that happens, I’ll be right next door.”

“I have to get home.” Arlyn turned and started walking.

“Go right ahead,” Cynthia called. “Fuck your window washer however much you’d like. But don’t come crying to me when it all comes crashing down.”

THE FIRST CRASH CAME WITH A CRACK IN THE WINDOW. One night rain came pouring into the upstairs hall. “Nobody noticed this!” John shouted. “What the hell are those window washers paying attention to?”

There were breaks in several of the roof panels, one in Sam’s bedroom, as a matter of fact. It was a dangerous oversight. John fired the Snow brothers the next day, even though Steven Snow insisted they hadn’t been hired for structural work. After threatening the Snows with legal action, John engaged a team to replace the broken windows, then found a new cleaning service, one that would be responsible for the yardwork as well. George’s truck could no longer be seen near the house. Still, he continued to come around, even though Arlie told him to phone instead and she’d meet him at the beach. He couldn’t stay away. Once he arrived on a bicycle borrowed from a neighbor’s child, another time he was waiting behind the boxwoods, so that when Arlie went out to get the newspaper a hand reached for her, and pulled her into the hedges. There he was, George Snow.

Arlie began to worry. Fate had a funny way of getting back at you when you were selfish and thoughtless, and maybe that’s what they’d been.

“Isn’t that the window man?” Sam asked when they passed George’s truck parked on their corner on the way home from the bus stop one day.

“He must be working for someone else,” Arlie said brightly.

“He’s looking at you funny,” Sam said.

Cynthia had been completely wrong in her assessment of the boy; there was no child smarter than Sam.

“Maybe he’s wondering why we’re not waving,” Arlie said.

She and Sam turned and waved with both hands.

“Hello, window man!” Sam cried.

The truck pulled away from the curb and made a U-turn.

“He didn’t wave back.” Sam looked up at his mother.

“Let’s have hot chocolate,” Arlie said. She was crying, but it was windy and she didn’t think Sam could see. She would have to make up her mind, she realized that now. It was stupid to think she could have it both ways. But if she left John did she risk the possibility of losing Sam?

“You don’t like hot chocolate.” Sam wondered if that was why she was crying.

“Sometimes I do,” Arlie said.

How could she be someone’s mother and be so selfish? After Cynthia, her eyes were opened. She saw the way people were staring at her at the market. She hurried through her shopping; then in the parking lot, Sue Hardy, who lived down the street, came up to her and said, “I’m just telling you as a neighbor — everybody is talking about that George Snow lurking around. I’m just warning you, Arlie. He’s not the invisible man.”

Arlyn called George that night, after John had gone off to bed. Sitting in the dark kitchen lit only by stars, she told him she thought they should take a break.

“Why would we ever do that, Arlie?”

“Don’t come around,” Arlie finally told him. “I can’t risk this anymore.”

In bed, watching John sleep, she became frightened of who she’d become. She had never been the sort of person who lied and cheated; she felt such actions were poisonous and wrong.

“What is it?” John said when he woke to see her sitting up in bed. Arlie looked a hundred years old.

“Did you ever wonder if we were really meant to be together?”

“God, Arlie.” John laughed. “Is that what’s keeping you awake?” He had stopped wondering about that. He’d made a wrong turn and here they were, years later, in bed. “Go to sleep. Forget things like that. That kind of thinking doesn’t do you any good.”

For once, Arlyn thought John was right. She closed her eyes. She would do what she had to do, no matter the price.

She stopped answering the phone when she knew George was the one calling. She looked out at the sky and after a while the phone stopped ringing. She kept busy. She took up knitting. She made Sam a sweater with a border of bluebirds. One day she came home from the market with Sam to see George’s truck in the driveway. George wasn’t behind the wheel. He was right up by the house, sitting beside the boxwoods. Arlie felt her heart go crazy, but she calmly said to Sam, “Can you take one of these packages?”

She handed Sam the lightest grocery bag, and grabbed the other two from the backseat.

“There’s the window washer,” Sam said. He waved at George and George waved back.

Arlie took the bag of groceries and told Sam to go play ball. George Snow got up. There was grass on his clothes; he’d been sitting there a long time, waiting.

She told him she couldn’t see him anymore. If she had to make a choice she would always choose Sam. Sam was throwing a ball against the garage door. She thought that his presence would keep the conversation with George on an even keel, but when she told George it was over, he got on his knees.

“Get up! Get up!” Arlyn cried. “You can’t do something like this!”

Although Sam rarely paid attention to adults, he was certainly watching now. A tall man was on his knees. The ball Sam had been playing with rolled down the drive, then disappeared beneath a rhododendron.

“We can just take off and go away,” George Snow said. “We’ll leave right now.”

He made it sound so easy, but of course Arlyn was the one who had something to lose. What about the child in the driveway whom she loved above all others? What about the man she had foolishly promised her future to?

“George,” she said. “I mean it. Get up!”

He stood to face her. His coat billowed out behind him. It was too late. He saw it in her face. He wiped his eyes with his coat sleeves.

“I can’t believe you’re going to do this to us,” he said.

He kissed her before she could tell him no. Not that she would have wanted him to stop. He kissed her for a long time, then he went to his truck. Sam waved to him and George Snow waved back.

“What was wrong with that man’s eyes?” Sam asked later, when his mother was putting him to bed.

“Soot fell into them,” Arlie said. “Now go to sleep.”

That night when John came home he called her name in a loud voice. Arlyn’s first thought was, He knows! Someone has told him! Cynthia did it! Now I can run away! But that wasn’t it at all. She went into the kitchen and John was holding out his closed hands. It was Arlyn’s birthday. She’d completely forgotten. She was twenty-five years old.

“Is this for me?” Arlyn said.

“I can’t imagine who else it would be for,” John said. “Let’s take a look.”

He opened his hands to reveal a strand of creamy pearls the color of camellias. The first beautiful thing John ever bought for her. He’d waited until now. Until she didn’t give a damn.

“I should have a birthday more often,” Arlie said.

It wasn’t until they were in bed that John told her he’d found the pearls.

“Oh, don’t be mad,” John said. “You know I can never remember dates. At least you have good luck on your birthday! It’s not every woman’s husband who finds a treasure. They were under the boxwood. Maybe they’ve been there for a hundred years.”

It was as though the pearls had grown outside their house, seeds planted in the earth, to arise milky as onionskin. Arlie looped them around her neck. Let that fool John think they’d appeared like magic, springing out of the earth or dropped from the sky by a red-winged hawk. She let John fasten the clasp even though they were most certainly a gift from another man, the one she’d loved. Not that it mattered anymore. She’d made her choice and if she herself lived to be a hundred she would never regret it.

Her choice would always be Sam.

SAM MOODY WASN’T LIKE OTHER PEOPLE. THE THINGS HE most often thought about were dishes, bones, vases, model planes, buildings made of blocks — things that could be broken. He secretly did things no one knew about. He broke things to hear how they sounded when they split apart. He put soot and glue into his father’s good shoes. He collected dead things — beetles, mice, moths, a baby rabbit. He picked fallen sparrows off the lawn, ones that had crashed into the windows and dropped to their death. He watched them all change into their last element — dust or bone — and then he put them into a cardboard box in the back of his closet. He sprayed some of his mother’s perfume around so that everything smelled like decay and jasmine. At night, to get himself to fall asleep without thinking scary thoughts, Sam stabbed his fingers with a straight pin. Having pain was easier than having bad thoughts.

He tried to dream about dogs — they were comforting; so was holding his mother’s hand. He had the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. Did other people think that way, too? During the hours he spent in school it was with him: the terrible, unknown, encroaching thing. He searched for it in the playground while the other boys and girls were on the swings or playing ball. He kept looking for dead things. Moths, worms, the foot of a chipmunk so shriveled up it looked like a bow from a girl’s ponytail. He believed in signs. He was certain that if one good thing happened to him, everything else would be good, but if he found one more dead thing, it would be the end of him in some deep and unknown way.

The good thing happened unexpectedly. He and his mother had often gone on adventures together when he was younger; then his mother got too busy. Now she was available again. All of a sudden she asked him if he’d mind skipping school and of course he said he wouldn’t mind at all. In no time they were driving to Bridgeport. He hoped they were running away forever. Nothing he ever did was right in his father’s eyes. His father didn’t even have to say anything anymore. The bad feelings had sifted from John Moody’s head into Sam’s head. Once they were on the ferry his mother let her hair down; it was so red and beautiful people turned to stare. The water was wavy, and Sam’s mother went to the railing; she excused herself and vomited into the Long Island Sound. A whoosh and a wrenching noise. Sam felt bad for her. If his father were here he’d be huffy and embarrassed because people were looking at her. His father wouldn’t understand that people weren’t only staring because she was sick; they were doing it because she was beautiful.

“I just need a drink of water,” Sam’s mother said. She was so pale the freckles stood out on her face the way they did when she was upset or hadn’t slept. He thought they might be telling him something if he could only understand the language of freckles.

When his mother felt better they went inside, to the snack bar; Sam’s mother had a glass of water and he ordered French fries. His mother reminded him that they used to take train trips when he was a baby, and he said he remembered, though he didn’t completely. A passing man asked his mother if she was feeling all right, and she said, Yes, thank you for your kindness, and for some reason Sam felt like crying when she said that. He was in kindergarten now. Too old for such things. Much too old to cry. He lay down on the bench seat with his head on his mother’s lap. Halfway across the sound the ferry’s foghorn echoed and they went out and stood on the deck.

“Lick your lips,” his mother told him. When he did he tasted French fries, but he told her he tasted sea salt.

They got off at the ferry terminal, then walked down the street hand in hand. Sam’s mother told him that his grandfather had been the captain of the ferryboat, and that he’d been brave and strong. The houses here seemed run-down. When they stopped and she said, We used to come here all the time. Remember?, he didn’t. The house where Arlyn had grown up had been sold several times since her departure; each time it became a little more ramshackle. Arlyn had always kept her distance, but now she had an overwhelming desire to see inside. She went up the path and knocked on the door; she introduced herself as Arlyn Singer to the woman who lived there now, even though Sam knew his mother’s name was Moody, just as his was.

“I used to live here,” she told the woman, who was old and wearing her slippers, but who invited them to take a look around all the same.

They wiped their feet on a mat. It was a little house, with white woodwork halfway up the walls and wallpaper the rest of the way. There were peacocks on the wallpaper, blue and purple and green. Sam stared at them up close; when he blinked they looked as though they were shaking their feathers at him.

“That was my mother’s dining-room table,” Arlie said. The mahogany one they never used. “I left it behind. She died when I was very young.”

Sam didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

“We’d better go home,” he told his mother.

“I suppose we should.” But when Sam grabbed her hand and pulled she didn’t move. “Gee,” she said to the woman who now owned the house, “seeing my mother’s table makes me feel like I’m seventeen again.”

“Look, if you want that old table, take it,” the homeowner said. “It’s junk anyway. But don’t expect me to pay you a cent for it if that’s what you’re after!”

“Oh, no! That’s not why I came here!”

Arlie sat down and started to cry, right there in front of a stranger. The mahogany chairs were rickety and creaked under her slight weight. Arlie was making sobbing sounds that frightened Sam and he started to cry right along with her.

“Go outside and play,” the woman who owned the house told him. “Stay in the backyard.”

Sam went out, but he looked back through the window. The woman they didn’t know might be a witch, after all. You never could tell. The inside of something was often so different from the outside. But through the glass Sam could see the woman bringing Arlie a cup of water; Sam thought it was probably all right. He could wander a bit and his mother would still be safe.

The yard bordered a large field of tall grass and buttercups. It was pretty, prettier than the dirt-and-cement backyard, so he went to have a look, deep into the grass that was as high as his head. He was looking for something, but he didn’t know what it was. He thought the same was true for why his mother had come here. Searching for a message no one else could understand.

He saw it out of the corner of his eye. A little thing, curled up. If it was dead the message was clear: the terrible thing was about to happen. Alive, and he might have a chance. It was a baby squirrel, a tiny thing that had wandered away from its nest. Sam bent down and breathed in the smell of dirt and grass. He touched the squirrel and it made a mewling noise. It was still alive.

“I found you,” he said in a whispery voice. Maybe he’d be lucky, after all. Maybe terrible things wouldn’t happen.

He heard his mother calling for him, first in a strong voice, then in a panicky one, as though she thought he’d floated into the air on the west wind, off to sea, back to Connecticut. He didn’t want to speak until he had finished up with his good luck. He carefully picked up the squirrel and put it in his jacket pocket, where there were cracker crumbs and an old grape.

“Sam!” Arlyn screamed, as though she were dying without him there.

She was standing in the yard behind the house, not so very far away, but the field was bigger than Sam had thought, the weeds and grass so high he couldn’t see her. Just the roof and chimney of the house that used to be hers. He ran back through the grass, confused at first, but managing to follow her voice. He had a huge smile on his face, but when he reached his mother, she grabbed his shoulders, angry.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again!” she cried. Her face was red and hot and streaked with tears. Her hair was tangled from the wind and Sam could tell she hadn’t found what she was looking for inside that house. Not the way he had.

Arlie sank to her knees and held him tight. “You’re everything to me.”

Sam patted down the hair that looked all tangled. She always wore a strand of milky pearls around her throat. She always loved him no matter what.

They walked back to the ferry and found their seats. While they were going home, he showed her what he’d found. The little squirrel seemed dazed.

“I don’t know if it will live,” Arlyn said. “It needs its mother.”

A man sitting nearby said to feed it bread softened with milk and keep it warm. They ordered a sandwich and some milk, mixed it up, and when they offered it to the baby squirrel, it ate a bit. After that, Arlie wrapped her scarf loosely around the squirrel. Their car was parked in the ferry lot, but instead of getting into it right away and heading home, Arlyn took Sam into the café for a treat. The squirrel was asleep in his pocket.

“You would be a good big brother,” Arlyn said.

“I don’t think so.” Sam was serious. It wouldn’t suit him.

“I know you would be,” Arlyn insisted.

They were the only customers in the café. For once, Sam didn’t have the feeling he had when he had to stick the pin into his finger to chase his bad thoughts away. He felt happy in the café, drinking hot chocolate while his mother had a cup of tea. When he got home, he would put the baby squirrel in a big box used for his blocks. He would listen all night long, willing it to stay alive.

“Maybe I would be good at it,” he said to please his mother.

“But you’ll always be everything to me,” Arlyn said. “Even if I have twenty more children, you will always be first.”

A man had come in and ordered some food and the cook was heating up the griddle. The cook broke three eggs, easy as that, crack, crack, crack. They weren’t the only people there anymore.

“Are you going to have twenty children?” Sam asked.

He wondered where his father thought they were. If he’d called the school, or the police, or their neighbor Cynthia, whom Sam despised. Cynthia thought children couldn’t hear conversations that weren’t directly addressed to them, but Sam heard everything.

“Just one more,” Arlyn said. “I think it will be a girl.”

“What will we call her?” Sam had been thinking about names for the squirrel as well. Nuts, Baby, Good Boy, Sam Junior.

“Blanca,” Arlyn said.

Sam looked up at his mother. She had already decided. He loved the sound of that name, how mysterious it was. “Why Blanca?”

“Because it means white as snow,” Arlyn said. “She’ll be a winter baby.”

On the drive home, Sam thought about snow falling. By winter his squirrel would be healthy and all grown up and Sam would take him back across the sound on the ferryboat, back to the field where the grass was so tall, and he would say, Run away. Run as fast as you can. Go back home where you belong.

SHE NEVER THANKED GEORGE FOR THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT he’d left behind, but she kept the pearls around her throat constantly, a testament to what they’d once had, and what, unbeknownst to George, they were about to have. As Arlie wore the pearls, their color changed to a pale oyster yellow in the first days of her pregnancy, when she was so anxious about being found out that she couldn’t eat or sleep.

As for John Moody, he had no reason to doubt her; he believed the child they were about to have was his. When Arlie stopped worrying, the pearls then became a pure Egyptian white. All the same, it was a difficult pregnancy. Arlyn was often sick to her stomach, tired, on the brink of tears. But in her ninth month, she became less haggard, robust almost, and the pearls blushed faintly. Pink as the inside of an ear, pink as winter light. It was January, a harsh, frozen season, but Arlyn’s presence was now so warm she seemed to heat whatever room she entered. Her hair turned darker, a deep blood red. The freckles she hated faded into nothingness. People in the shops in town stopped to tell her she looked radiant; she laughed and thanked them.

Shouldn’t she be guilt-ridden over what she had done? Well, she wasn’t. She surprised herself with the way she felt. At night when John was asleep, Arlyn sat beside the windows to watch snow drift down and she thought, I am happy.

It was a moment made of glass, this happiness; it was the easiest thing in the world to break. Every minute was a world, every hour a universe. Arlie tried to slow her breathing, thinking it might slow time, but she knew they were all hurtling forward no matter what. At night she read stories to Sam. She lay down beside him in his bed and felt his body next to her, the shape of his hipbone, his leg, his wiggly little feet. He smelled like glue and loyalty. By now Arlyn knew he wasn’t like other children. There were more problems at school — he wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t behave; he often seemed to be in his own world, disconnected, missing homework assignments, ignoring party invitations. There were no friends who came to play. No after-school sports. No positive teacher’s reports. All the same, at night when Arlie read to him, Sam was happy as well. They both were. The squirrel had indeed lived, and had been named William. He was now at home in the closet, nesting among a mess of torn-up newspapers and rags and peanut shells, tearing up the Sheet-rock, chomping on the wooden floor, coming out to play in the afternoons after school.

William was their shared secret — John Moody had no idea the squirrel existed. That was how little he knew of their domestic life. Why, his wife and son could have had a tiger in a cage, a fox in the basement, a bald eagle nesting beside the washing machine and John would have been none the wiser. Arlyn could not remember the last time John had come into the child’s bedroom to say good night, or the last time he had spoken to her other than to ask where his briefcase was or if she might fix him some breakfast. As for the pregnancy, it seemed to mean no more than that day’s weather, a fact of their life, neither good nor bad, joyful nor regrettable.

John was busy, far too busy for the likes of them, fools who wasted their time on squirrels and books and happiness. He was at work on a huge project in Cleveland — a tower of glass, thirty stories, bigger and better than the Glass Slipper or any of his father’s other buildings. John spent most of the week in Ohio, exhausted when he flew back for the weekend, wanting only peace and quiet.

“He’ll come around,” Arlyn’s mother-in-law told her when she phoned. “The Moody men are better fathers to teenagers than they are to small children.”

Arlyn laughed and said, “You always defend him.”

“Wouldn’t you do the same?” Diana asked.


Of course Arlyn would defend her own child no matter what. This was most likely the reason Diana had liked her daughter-in-law from the moment they met, when Arlie had knocked on the back door, an uninvited girl of seventeen. Arlyn might look placid, but there was a fierceness there, one Diana appreciated.

“How is my brilliant grandson?” Diana always asked when they spoke.

“Still brilliant,” Arlie would inform her.

On this they always agreed. Arlyn was now reading the entire Edward Eager series to Sam, stories that had all taken place in Connecticut. They were up to Half Magic, in which the wishes made never worked out as planned. William the squirrel, which had been to the vet in town for all the proper shots, perched on the bedpost and listened, making occasional chattering noises, turning the bedpost to wood dust with his gnawing.

“Do you mind being fat?” Sam asked one night when he was being tucked into bed.

“Not at all,” Arlyn said. So much the better; John Moody didn’t come near her. She laughed to herself.

“I don’t feel the way the children in those books do. They’re hopeful. I feel that something bad is about to happen.”

Sam had lovely big eyes. When he was tucked into bed, you wouldn’t think he was the terror his teachers said he was, the one who locked himself in a coat closet or drew on the walls with crayons and ink.

“Well, you’re a real-life child and they’re fictional.” Arlyn tested Sam’s forehead for fever.

“I wish I was fictional,” Sam said.

“Well, I want you just the way you are.” Arlyn hugged him good night.

“What about William?” Sam said.

Arlyn laughed and patted the squirrel, then put him in his box for the night.

“Sweet dreams to you both,” she called.

Arlyn wore the pearls to bed, enjoying the heat of them around her neck. Pearls were made of living matter, and so they continued to live. She had heard that George Snow was working in New Haven, that he and his brother had disbanded the business after the run-in with John Moody. As it happened, the new window washers weren’t reliable; they were rather cowardly and refused to come and perch atop the Glass Slipper when there was inclement weather. The windows in the house were foggy on the outside, streaked with sleet. When Diana came up to help out as the time for the baby grew near, she complained about how dingy the house had become. The rooms were too big, the house too much for Arlyn to clean. As for Sam’s room, it smelled of peanuts and dirt. Even worse, the toddler Diana had so adored was now a sullen six-year-old. Sam would not speak to his grandmother. He was withdrawn and shy.

“What’s wrong with him? I hear him talking to himself when I pass by his room.”

“He’s perfectly fine,” Arlie said. “He’s just not like everyone else.”

“Good lord,” Diana said. “These are real behavior problems. That poor darling boy. Where is John in all this?”


“I see,” Diana said.

The Moody men, Diana assured her daughter-in-law, could be detached, busy, in a world of their own. Well, maybe Sam was merely following that pattern, or maybe it was something more. Certainly, all was not well in this house. It was clear that the marriage was unhappy. Several times, Diana noticed a truck driving slowly by, late at night, headlights turned off. Once a man had gotten out to stand in the snow. Diana had watched from the kitchen window. The fellow disappeared soon enough, and there were no tire tracks when Diana went to look in the morning. Maybe he hadn’t been there at all. Maybe she’d seen only the shadows the boxwoods cast along the road.

It was snowing on the night of the birth. John was in Cleveland and so Arlyn called a taxi service. “You don’t mind, do you?” Arlie said when she woke her mother-in-law to watch over Sam. Arlyn was already wearing her coat; her packed overnight bag was by the door. “And don’t be upset if Sam doesn’t talk to you when you send him to school. He’s not a morning person.”

“Don’t worry,” Diana said. She was furious with her son, off working, leaving this poor girl to fend for herself. “I’ll take care of everything here.”

Blanca was born at eight minutes after midnight, a beautiful pale child who looked exactly like George Snow. She calmly let herself be held and cradled and nursed. She was cool to the touch and she smelled sweet. John Moody was called in Cleveland. Though the nurses were shocked that he was away working, leaving the new mother on her own, Arlie herself was grateful. She would have felt guilty if John had been standing by.

“My snow girl,” she said to the baby in such a pure voice that the infant turned her head to hear more. “My darling, my daughter, my pearl.”

When Arlie brought the baby home, Sam was waiting in the driveway. The taxi stopped and Arlie got out and there he was, waiting, no coat, no hat. Diana came running out.

“He refuses to come inside. He’s been standing here all day. I was about to call the police. I thought he’d freeze to death!”

Arlyn smiled at her little boy. Snow was falling onto his shoulders. His lips were blue with cold.

“Is that her?” Sam asked.

Arlie nodded and brought the baby over.

“Blanca,” Sam said. “She’s beautiful.”

Diana had had enough. She’d seen to it that John was taking the evening flight from Cleveland. Mother, this is business, he’d said when she’d phoned to tell him to get home. Diana had made a lot of excuses in her time; she was an expert, really, but she wasn’t making excuses now. As a husband and a father, John was lacking. Diana looked at Arlyn and her children and she remembered how lonely she’d been as a young mother in this same house. She wanted to say, Run away. Run as fast as you can. Instead she reached for the baby. “I’ll bring Blanca inside.”

Arlyn and Sam stayed in the driveway a while longer.

“Now we’re all here,” Arlyn said. “My dreams came true. I wanted a son just like you and a daughter just like Blanca.”

It was getting even colder and they needed to go inside. They walked along the driveway toward the door, but at the last moment Arlyn pulled on Sam’s sleeve, holding him back. Arlyn lay down in the drive; she flapped her arms, making a snow angel. He watched her for a moment, then followed suit. They were so cold and wet, it no longer mattered how much snow they got into.

They stood up and studied their angels. “There,” Arlie said, sounding satisfied. “That’s for good luck.”

Sam was shivering now. He went up to his room. He was supposed to take off his wet clothes, but he let the damp sink into his bones. The angels they’d made in the driveway were beautiful, but they were sad, too. They made Sam think of heaven and of the end of the world. He couldn’t bear to think of anything bad happening to his mother or to Blanca. He had a bad feeling, as though he were sinking. The truth was, Sam had a secret, one he hadn’t told. His mother had been so excited about the baby; she was too happy for him to tell her why he’d been standing outside in the driveway in the snow, refusing to come inside.

It wasn’t because Blanca was coming home. He’d been out there all day because William had died. That morning Sam had opened the closet to give the squirrel his favorite meal — an apple with peanut butter — and there William had been, curled up in his nest, unmoving. Sam closed the door and went out to the driveway. He kept a pin in his pocket and stabbed at his fingertips, but that sort of pain wasn’t enough to get rid of what he felt. When he went to bed that night, instead of crying, he counted to a hundred. One, nothing could touch him. Two, he was miles away. Three, he was flying high above houses and treetops, one of those rare Connecticut people his mother told him about, people who belonged to a strange and little-known race. He might be one of them; a boy who could fly away from danger and heartbreak and never feel a thing.

ARLIE FELT THE LUMP WHEN BLANCA WAS THREE MONTHS old, while she was breast-feeding. Her breasts had been bumpy and engorged with milk, but this was something else entirely. Just what she’d always feared. Something in the shape of a stone.

John Moody had finished his building in Cleveland — it had been dubbed the Glass Mountain and people in that city were highly critical of its height. Now John was back. The baby had softened him a bit; maybe it was all right to coo and fuss over a daughter if not over a son, or maybe he’d actually heard his mother when she told him how disappointed she was.

John was in the kitchen having coffee on the day Arlie found the lump. He’d actually poured Arlyn a cup. He was trying to be considerate. When he looked up to see Arlie standing there in her nightgown, her hair uncombed, he forgot about the coffee.

“I think something’s wrong,” Arlie said.

John Moody knew his was not the happiest of marriages. He felt he’d been trapped; his youth had been taken from him. He had still never been to Italy, although he’d taken several courses and could now converse in halting Italian, a Venetian dialect, with his teacher, a lovely young woman he’d made love to twice. Three times would be an affair, he told himself. Once was only an experiment, since he’d been so young when he’d married. Twice was simply to be polite so as not to hurt the poor woman’s feelings. When he started working on the building in Cleveland he’d stopped the classes; he had received several messages at his office from his Italian teacher, but he hadn’t returned them. Frankly, he was settled into his marriage; his wife no longer expected him to be anything he wasn’t. She knew him.

“Look, everyone has problems,” he said to Arlie. He’d thought she was a free spirit, but she was a worrier, really. “You can’t let difficulties stop you. You can’t just give up, can you?”

Arlie came to the table. She stood in front of him and took his hand. His true impulse was to pull it away, but he didn’t. He wanted to read the paper, but he forced himself to be there for her. On the evening before his mother had left, she pulled him aside to say, Be kinder. So that was what he was trying to do. Arlie had just had a baby, after all, and couldn’t be held responsible for her actions or her moods. Or so Jack Gallagher next door had told him when John complained about how erratic Arlyn was. But then Jack had no children, and in a matter of weeks he’d have no wife. Cynthia had made it clear to John Moody that she was available; she had filed for divorce and Jack would soon be moving out. So much for his neighbor’s advice. As a matter of fact, John had known about the divorce before Jack himself had. One night soon after Arlie came home with the baby, Cynthia had been waiting for John in the driveway, desperate for someone to talk to, someone who would understand.

He could deal with his own wife, surely. The newspaper could wait. But instead of wanting to talk, Arlie did something that completely surprised John. She placed his hand on her breast. He felt the lump right away; all at once he realized how long it had been since he’d touched her. And now this, a stone.

“Maybe this is normal. Maybe you should stop breast-feeding and it will go away.”

That was the way he thought about life. He believed in logic and denial in equal parts, but Arlie knew better. She thought about the instants in time she’d had. Standing on the porch waiting for John, giving birth to her babies, racing along the beach with George Snow while he threw stones at the sea, the snow angels in the driveway, the way Sam reached for her hand. This moment was the dividing line between the before and the after. No more hanging globes of time. No more forevers. Sitting in the doctor’s office, dozens of mammograms, making dinner for Sam and John, rocking Blanca to sleep, calling Diana to ask if she would come back up from Florida to help out with the children after Arlie had her surgery. It all happened so fast; the past hung above Arlyn as though imprinted on air. She thought of it as a ceiling she walked beneath. She tried her best to remember her own mother. Arlie had been three years old when her mother became ill, with what, Arlie had never been told. If she’d known it was the same cancer she herself now had, she would have known to check herself and be checked, but people didn’t talk about such things. Cancer was a spell with evil effects; said aloud, the very word was capable of putting a curse on the speaker.

The worst was how little she remembered of her mother, only bits and pieces — red hair, like her own, but with a darker sheen; a song she sang, “Stormy Weather”; a single story she told, “Red Riding Hood.” Three years with her mother and that was all Arlyn could recall. Her own little girl was three months old, not three years. What would she possibly remember? A red shadow, a voice, a strand of pearls she played with as she nursed.

Arlie thought carefully about what she wanted to do before her surgery. She treated it as though it were her last day on earth. She kept Sam home from school. He had been more withdrawn since his pet squirrel died, though Arlyn had tried to explain why the loss had happened. She’d told him there was a natural order to all of life, and that he had done his best to care for the creature. No one, not the president, not the man in the moon, could say who would live and who would die.

Arlie read to Sam all morning on the day before her surgery. They were up to Magic or Not? — almost done with the Edward Eager series of Connecticut marvels. Arlie brought the baby into bed with them so she could feel how alive both her children were. Blanca’s gurgles; Sam’s warm body stretched out beside her. Sam was tall for a six-year-old; he’d be like his father, rangy, needing to duck under doorways. Arlie wanted Sam to have everything; she wanted the world for him. With so little time, she did the best she could; at lunchtime, she took the children to the ice-cream parlor on Main Street and let Sam order a Bonanza, the sundae of his dreams — four flavors of ice cream, chocolate and butterscotch sauce, lots and lots of whipped cream, red and green maraschino cherries. He ate about a third of it, then held his stomach and groaned.

As for John, he was at work. Not as heartless as one would think: Arlyn had told him to go, said she wanted the day to be normal, otherwise she wouldn’t get through it. Or maybe he simply wasn’t a part of her perfect day. Maybe she wanted John gone for reasons she could barely admit to herself. Maybe she had to see George Snow one last time.

Late in the afternoon, she brought the children to Cynthia’s.

“Arlie,” Cynthia said. Her eyes filled with tears at the sight of her neighbor.

“Can you watch them for me?” Arlie had her car keys still in her hand. It was April and everything outside was greening.

“No,” Sam said. “Don’t leave us. We hate her.”

“You see,” Cynthia said helplessly.

Arlie led Sam into Cynthia’s hallway, then handed the baby to her neighbor. They might not be friends anymore, but sometimes friendship was the least of it. “I need you,” Arlie said.

“I won’t stay in a witch’s house,” Sam told his mother.

“He won’t.” Cynthia looked down at the baby in her arms. Blanca gazed back at her.

“Okay, then take them home, the back door’s open. They’ll be happier over there. Let Sam watch TV and give Blanca a bottle. Heat it under hot water, then test it to make sure it’s not too hot.”

“I’m not an idiot.” Cynthia sounded as though she might cry. “Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I would burn her mouth.”

“Of course you won’t. I know that, Cynthia. I trust you.” Arlie turned to Sam. “Do what Cynthia says for the rest of the day unless it’s utterly stupid. I’m asking as a favor. I need you to.”

Sam nodded. He had an awful breathless feeling, but he knew when his mother meant something.

Arlie got into her car and drove to New Haven. She knew where George was living. She had looked him up in the phone book months ago. She’d called once, then had hung up before he answered. If he’d known Blanca was his, he would have come after them. It would have been a mess. Now, everything was a mess anyway. Arlie drove too fast. She felt hot all over. Around her neck, the pearls George had left for her were feverish, colored with a rusty tinge. She parked across from the three-story house where he rented an apartment. She guessed it was the top floor. She wished she could see the mailboxes and find his name printed there, but she stayed in the car. Good thing; just then his truck pulled into the driveway. He was working in a pet store. George and his brother no longer spoke; they’d had a terrible argument after they’d been fired by the Moodys. Frankly, George avoided most people, preferring the quiet camaraderie of parakeets and goldfish. He got out of his truck, then went around the back for a backpack and a lunchbox. His collie, Ricky, jumped out. The dog looked older, but George looked the same, just far away. It had been only a year since Arlyn had seen him, so how could it feel like forever? He was whistling as he walked from the driveway, up to the steps to the porch. Then he was gone, the collie at his heels, the door slamming.

She didn’t get out and tell him. She almost did, but she had always been afraid of stones, and the path to his house was made of them, small round bits of gravel. It was too late. It was too awful and unfair to come to him now. Arlyn was holding on to the steering wheel so tightly her fingers turned white. Lights went on in the third-floor apartment. If she’d gone with him when he asked her to leave John, they would have had this year together. Now there was only pain and sorrow to share. She didn’t want Blanca fought over, pulled apart, even at this cost. At least she’d seen him. Another perfect moment in her perfect day.

Arlie drove home slowly, trying not to think of anything but the road and her children at home. She’d been granted more than most people. Real love, after all, was worth the price you paid, however briefly it might last. There was one glitch in the day, a horrible one: a pre-op consultation at the hospital, scheduled late so that John might accompany her. The sky was turning dark blue. April blue. Inside the hospital it was terribly bright. Arlie was the last patient of the day. Did they save the best or the worst for last? That’s what Arlyn wanted to know. The doctor was young. He told her to call him Harry, but she couldn’t do that; she called him Dr. Lewis. If he wanted her to call him by his first name the prognosis must be bad. John was there with her and she was grateful; his presence stopped her from breaking down. She knew John didn’t like bad news, difficult women, tragedy. Could it be that she had never cried in front of him? Not even on that day in New Haven when she came to his dorm so convinced of the future; she’d only wept after he was gone. She wasn’t about to start now.

Dr. Lewis would see the extent of the cancer when he operated; there would be two other doctors, residents, assisting in the surgery, and the thought of a team of people inside her made Arlie shudder. It took a while before she actually understood they planned to cut off her breast. She stopped thinking after that, didn’t even consider further complications. She cleared her mind. Time had stopped. She had insisted that it do so and it had. The drive home was silent and lasted a decade. She thanked Cynthia, who had made dinner for the family. After dinner, John walked Cynthia home. She put her arms around him and he fell into her. Cynthia was there for him, the way she’d promised to be. She took him home, then upstairs to her bedroom; her love wasn’t a crime, it was a gift, that’s the way Cynthia saw it, and that was the way John Moody received it.

Alone in the Glass Slipper, Arlie put the baby to sleep, then washed up. Every dish was an eternity, but that was fine. She wanted it all to last. She didn’t mind John’s absence; she liked the stillness. That night in Sam’s room, the story Arlie whispered took a hundred years to tell. It was Sam’s favorite story, her father’s story about the flying people in Connecticut. “If I’m gone,” she told him afterward, “that’s where I’ll be. Right above you, flying. I’ll never really leave you.”

Sam had the bones of his squirrel in a cardboard shoebox in the back of his closet. He knew what happened after death.

“There’s no such people,” he said.

“Yes, there are.”

“Prove it,” Sam said.

So Arlyn did something crazy. She took Sam up to the roof. She led him through the attic to the door that opened onto a flat glass space. This was the place where George Snow had been standing when she first spied him. Clouds were rushing by the moon. The trees moved with the wind. Arlyn could feel those people her father had told her about all around her. They were the ones who never left you, no matter what.

“See them?” Arlyn’s voice sounded strange, small and lost.

All Sam saw was the huge universe and the darkening sky. Blue, black, indigo; the horizon was a line so shimmery it made him blink. He realized that his mother’s eyes were closed. He knew they were in a dangerous place. Something rustled in the trees. Something beautiful.

“Yes, I do,” Sam said.

Arlyn laughed and sounded like herself again. She’d opened her eyes. She had already added this to her instants in time as the very best moment of all. A breathless, gorgeous, dark night. She felt so oddly free, untethered to earth. But even if she could have flown away, she would never have left her son. One more second was worth everything. They went down the steps into the attic, back to Sam’s bedroom. Arlie tucked in his blankets and wished him a good night’s sleep. She waited there beside him until he was dreaming, until his breath was even and deep; then she stayed a while longer, right there in the chair, until he opened his eyes in the morning. “I knew you’d still be here,” Sam said, and for once in his life he had some small hope that not everything in the world was a lie.

JOHN MOODY WAS A FIXER, AND A BUILDER, AND A PLANNER; in times of sorrow he did what he knew best. He designed a project in order to have something on which he could concentrate. A ridiculous endeavor, people in town said, a huge pool set behind the Glass Slipper, a beautiful thing as John conceived it, rimmed by slate with an infinity edge that led the water into a smaller pool below on the hillside. The hole had already been dug by the backhoes by the time Arlyn came home from the hospital. It was twelve feet in the deep end and the digging seemed endless, through rock and through clay. Clods of red mud and shards of shale littered the lawn. The noise could be deafening at times, and Arlie kept her windows closed and the shades drawn. It was June and she was dying while she listened to the bulldozers and the cement mixers. It had been the rainiest spring on record and now everything was so green the leaves of the lilacs and the rows of boxwoods looked black.

The tumor reached under her chest wall and was entwined through her ribs. Her surgeon could not get it all. Her bones had turned to lace. She called her doctor Harry now; it was that bad. The oncologists put her on a schedule of radiation and chemo, but after a month she was so desperately ill they took her off. She was not an experiment, only a dying woman, one who soon enough had lost her red hair. She had braided it before the chemo began, then cut it off, ten inches long. The rest fell out on her pillow and in the shower and as she walked along the lane, slowly, with Cynthia supporting her when she grew tired. “Hold me up,” she told Cynthia. “I’m depending on you.”

“I’m not that strong,” Cynthia said once.

“Oh, yes you are,” Arlyn said. “That’s what made me want to be friends with you in the first place.”

Arlyn kept the braid of hair in a memory box she was making for her children, stored alongside photographs of the family, pictures Sam had drawn for her, Blanca’s plastic name bracelet from the hospital. When the time came, Arlie would add her pearls. After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.

Twice she had seen John Moody walk through the hedges at dusk, headed toward Cynthia’s house. He thought she wouldn’t know because he was now sleeping in the den, but she knew. She rarely left her room now so John must have felt safe to seek comfort next door. The last walk Arlie had taken was the one when she collapsed; Cynthia had stood in the street screaming for help and an oil truck pulled over. The driver was a heavyset man who had carried Arlie home.

“You must be one of those flying men from Connecticut,” Arlie had told him.

His wings were probably huge.

“In my truck I surely do fly.” The oil man’s own mother had recently died. Although he was a tough, no-bullshit guy, he didn’t seem that way now. “Just don’t tell the police and get me arrested.”

“I won’t,” Arlie assured him.

After that, John had hired a nurse whose name was Jasmine Carter. Jasmine gave Arlie her medicines and helped her bathe and dress. Jasmine took care of Arlie, and Diana Moody came up to take care of the children. Arlie still made sure to hold her daughter close at least once a day; every night she read to Sam, and when she couldn’t see the words anymore, he read to her.

“Do you hate me without my hair?” she asked Sam one night. It used to be that they would read in his room and he’d be the one in bed. Now it was reversed, but they never mentioned that.

“I like you better this way,” Sam said. “You’re like a baby bird.”

“Chirp chirp,” Arlyn said.

Sometimes, when her hands were shaking, Arlie needed help in order to eat. She felt like a bird. She tried to hide her decline from Sam, but it wasn’t easy. Arlyn didn’t care what anyone said about Sam. He knew things other children did not. Certainly, he knew what was happening now. He held a glass of water so she could sip from a straw. When she was done, he put the glass on a woven coaster so it wouldn’t leave a ring on the night table.

“Sometime soon you’re going to take my pearls and put them in a special treasure box that I have,” Arlie said. “They’re for your sister.”

“What do I get?” Sam wanted to know.

“You had me all to yourself for six years,” Arlie said. “Maybe we’ll get to seven.”

“Or eight or nine or ten or a thousand.”

It felt like a thousand years already. It was as though she had used up all her time, but was still hanging on. She could not stand the noise outside, the men shouting as they poured cement, the clicking as the tiles were put in, aquamarine-colored tiles from Italy; John had ordered them straight from the factory outside Florence, that’s how good his Italian was now. He had sat beside Arlie’s bed and showed her the catalogs of tiles. Sky blue, azure, turquoise, midnight. Turchese. Cobalto. Azzurro di cielo. Azzurro di mezzanotte. She’d fallen asleep in the middle of the conversation, and in the end John chose the tiles he liked best.

George Snow didn’t know about Arlie until one afternoon when he happened to meet up with his brother at a bar in New Haven. George was having a late lunch, a cheeseburger and a beer. He wanted to be left alone, but Steven came to sit beside him. Right away, as though they hadn’t stopped talking to each other months ago, Steve spoke of the man who was responsible for their failed business and their nonexistent relationship, though he’d sworn he’d never say the name aloud.

“That bastard Moody is putting in the swimming pool to end all swimming pools. And with her in the middle of dying.”

George Snow would forever after remember that he had just put down his glass when he heard the news. His brother went on speaking, but George didn’t hear a word. He heard only about her.

“Are you talking about Arlyn?”

Steve realized what he’d blundered into. “She’s sick, man. I thought you knew. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I was.”

George threw some money on the bar and went for the door. His brother called, and when George kept on going, Steven followed him into the parking lot.

“Seriously, George, she’s not your wife and it’s not your business. They went ahead and had another kid, didn’t they?”

“When was that?” George said, stunned.

“This past winter. I thought you knew.”

George got in his truck and took off. He had a panicky feeling inside his chest. He could be angry at his brother all he wanted, but George knew he had only himself to blame for not knowing. He’d moved to New Haven so he wouldn’t run into Arlie; he’d been a coward in the face of her rejection. He’d figured if she had changed her mind, she would have contacted him. He’d figured she made the choice to stay with John. Now everything he’d been so sure of was evaporating.

George Snow was driving so fast little stones flew up and hit against his windshield. When he got to the street where she lived his panic worsened. There were four trucks parked in the driveway, so he pulled onto the grass. The lawn was soft from all the rain in the spring and his tires sank in deeply, but George didn’t give a damn. As an ex–window washer he noticed that the windows were in bad shape, streaky and matted with leaves and pollen.

As he sat in his parked truck, not knowing what to do next, a woman came out of the house. George recognized her as the mother-in-law. She had Sam in tow — it was Friday, music lessons — and in the mother-in-law’s arms, the baby. A real, live baby. George Snow watched them get into a car and pull away. He was dizzy and overheated; he felt as though he’d just woken from a dream in which he lived in a third-floor apartment with an old collie and worked in a pet shop. But now he was awake. He left his truck and went up the drive to knock on the door. When no one answered, he rang the bell; he just kept his hand on it until it sounded like church bells. A woman George didn’t recognize opened the door. “Stop that,” she said. “Have you no consideration?”

George Snow walked past the strange woman, into the hallway. It was so dim inside, as though he’d wandered into a dark wood.

“Stop right there.” The woman was a nurse. Jasmine Carter. “You’d better do what I say or I’m calling the police.”

“I’m going to see Arlyn.”

The house used to seem perfect to George; he knew it so well from looking through the windows. But it wasn’t the way he remembered it. Standing in the hall, he couldn’t see outside through the glass.

“Oh, no you’re not,” Jasmine said. “I’m in charge of Arlyn and I’ll tell you what you’ll do. Do you have any idea of what’s going on here?”

“She’d want to see me.”

Jasmine and George stared at each other and George knew he was being assessed. Who exactly was he to think he had any right to anything? He thought about the children in the driveway. He thought about all he didn’t know.

“I’m going to see her no matter what you say,” George told the nurse after he introduced himself.

One thing he clearly was was a man who would cause a ruckus if Jasmine tried to get rid of him. And he was more; when he said his name, Jasmine recognized it. It was the name Arlyn said in her sleep.

“Well, if you want to see her, you’d better be prepared. I won’t have you upsetting her with your reaction. Get all of the bullshit out right now. What you’re about to see isn’t pretty.”

“I’m okay,” George said.

“You won’t be,” Jasmine said. “Trust me.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know she talks about you when she doesn’t intend to. Most probably, she wouldn’t want you to see her this way.”

George hadn’t thought about how terrible it would be to love someone and see her in pain. He had not had a glimpse of Arlie in more than a year. He had begun to heal, if anyone could call a life spent alone and cut off healing.

“I’m okay,” he said. “No matter how she looks.”

He followed Jasmine upstairs.

“She’s sleeping a lot. She wishes she could go outside, but it’s just too hard for me to carry her. Fifty pounds is my limit.”

As they walked along, the glass ceiling above them was streaked with pine needles, pollen, leaves, raindrops, a mourning cloak. They walked past the children’s rooms.

“Does the baby have red hair?” George asked.

“Blond.” Jasmine had been a nurse for fifteen years. She could sense certain truths in an instant. “Like you.”

Jasmine knocked when they reached Arlyn’s room; she opened the door and peeked in. “Someone here to see you.”

No response. Jasmine nodded to George to follow her inside. They could hear the tile men finishing up the pool and the dreadful cranking of the water trucks unfolding their hoses.

Jasmine went over to the lump in the bed. “Lucky girl, you’ve got a visitor.”

“Send them away.” Arlie’s mouth was dry and cottony from the high dosages of Demerol the doctor had prescribed. She didn’t sound like herself. It was as though the words hurt.

Arlyn’s back was to them, but George could see her head. No red hair, no hair at all. He could feel a stone in his throat. He hated himself and he hated the world and he hated this instant in time.

“Arlie,” he said. “It’s me.”

He could tell that she recognized his voice because she responded; her back curled more rigidly, like a turtle in its shell. For an instant, she seemed to stop breathing.

“He can’t see me,” Arlyn said. She’d been snapped back into the world from her dreaming place and it didn’t feel good. It felt as though her heart would break.

“Blindfold me,” George said to Jasmine. “I don’t have to see her to be with her. I promise I won’t look at you,” he told Arlie.

“You’re crazy,” Jasmine said, but she took a scarf from the top dresser drawer, wrapped it over his eyes and tied it tight. “He won’t see a thing,” she assured Arlyn. “He just wants to sit beside you, honey.”

“I’m vain. I want him to remember me as I was.” Arlyn was whispering but George heard her perfectly well. Jasmine had sat him down in a chair beside the bed. He could feel Arlie’s breath. He could feel the blankets against his knees and the wooden bedframe. He’d made love to her there once. Quickly, guiltily, with great pleasure.

“He doesn’t even know about the baby,” Arlie said.

“I’m going downstairs for a few minutes.” Jasmine understood what this man wanted — the same thing everyone wanted: time. “Call if you need me.”

“I should have come back,” George said. “If I had come here over and over again, you would have said yes and left with me.”

Arlie took his hand. For a moment he was shocked by how cold she was. She brought his hand up to the pearls.

“Oh,” George said. “I threw them under the hedge when you told me to go.”

The pearls had never been off her throat, except during medical procedures, and even then she’d had one of the nurses slip the pearls into her uniform pocket beneath her surgical robe. During radiation she’d had them in her locker with her belongings, there at all times. For luck, for love, for no reason at all. They’d been his mother’s pearls, he’d never gotten to tell Arlyn that, and his grandmother’s pearls before that.

They sat there for a while, hand in hand, in an instant of time neither wanted to end. Her vision was going, but she could see him, the way people see clouds — beautiful, racing by, casting shadows.

“I was never going to leave Sam. Anyway, you’re lucky I didn’t come with you. Then you’d be stuck with me.”

But he was stuck anyway, even though she hadn’t come away with him. George lowered his head and cried. He made a sound that was low down inside him, all hurt, nothing else. He could see through the haze of the scarf Jasmine had tied over his eyes. He saw it all.

“Now I’m the one who’s stuck,” Arlie said. “I hate being trapped in this room. I’ve considered leaving my body before I die. I keep thinking about grass and the boxwood hedge. The way the sky looks when you’re lying on the ground staring up.”

This was the most she had spoken in a week and the words had exhausted her. She waved her hand. She couldn’t say more. She felt like the luckiest person in the universe to have George Snow sitting beside her. Put us in a jar, she thought. Put us in eternity.

Through the scarf George could study her pale face without a single freckle; they had all disappeared. There were her beautiful cloudy eyes. Oh, it was her. Arlie. So tiny. Wasting away. Sixty-five pounds, but still here.

“If you let me take the blindfold off, I can carry you outside. Otherwise I might fall down the stairs and kill both of us.”

Her laugh was like water.

He took the blindfold off. Jasmine was right. Seeing Arlie fully was harder than he’d thought it would be. He saw how blotchy and swollen her face had become. He saw the veins in her scalp. Around her neck there was a string of black pearls that looked nothing like the necklace he’d left under the hedge.

“They’re the same ones,” Arlie told him. “They turn colors.”

“Really? Magic?”

“Radiation. I think they soak up whatever is inside me.”

George lifted her out of bed. She weighed nothing. She smelled like illness and soap. The pearls looked like strange black marbles.

“Will we fly?” Arlyn asked.

“Possibly,” George answered.

He grabbed a blanket and folded it around her, then carried her down the stairs. Jasmine was in the kitchen, fixing herself some tea.

“Diana will be back with the children in half an hour,” Jasmine warned. “Who told you you could take her outside?”

“She wants me to.” George opened the back door.

Jasmine came over. “I don’t know about this,” she said. “She gets chilled so easily.”

“It’s what she wants,” George said.

The nurse didn’t stop George from taking Arlie into the bright light of the backyard. The water pumps were chugging; the tile men finishing up the rim of the pool were shouting to each other. George went up to the pool man in charge.

“Shut off the water and get out of here,” he said.

The pool man looked at Arlie, then shouted to his men. The pool was nearly full. No problem. They could come back another day.

“Get out of here,” George told the tile men. Tiles from Italy sat in a pile. A few were chipped, most were perfect. The tile men didn’t speak English. George kicked an empty box in their direction.

“Go!” he shouted. He stomped his feet like a bull. “Leave!”

George Snow looked like a crazy man carrying a ghost. The tile men were afraid of blackbirds and ghosts at the workplace. Bad luck and accidents, that’s what such things meant. Crazy men were even worse. Bad luck all around.

While the workmen were packing up, George took Arlyn out to the lawn.

“Faster,” she said. “Fly me there.”

He ran, then spun in a circle.

Arlyn laughed. “Not that fast.”

She was out of breath. George stopped. He dropped the blanket on the grass, then set Arlie down and rolled the blanket back to cover her, like a cocoon. He heard shouting, but he ignored everything except Arlie’s face. It was John Moody doing the yelling, home early, chastising the workmen, who were supposed to be finishing the pool that week. When John heard they’d been ordered to stop by the fellow on the lawn, he approached George Snow. John figured George must be one of the pool men. How dare he hold up the work?

“I want you off this property,” John told him.

“Do you?” George said.

“Don’t come back looking for a paycheck.”

George got up from the grass. The clouds were flying overhead. When John Moody was close enough, George punched him straight in the face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” John was bleeding heavily from his nose. The grass under his feet had turned red. “Don’t think I won’t call the police. I’ll have you arrested right now. The cops will be here before you have time to get away, you son of a bitch.”

George walked over to John and grabbed him. “You had a fucking pool put in while she’s dying. All she can hear all day long are the bulldozers. Every noise goes right through her. Is that how you take care of her?”

John Moody saw the blanket on the grass then. Something small was wrapped inside. It was Arlie. His wife. John looked at George carefully. Now he recognized him. The window washer.

“I’m going to be here every day,” George Snow said. “And you’re not going to call the police or anyone else.”

George Snow looked dangerous, insane. John understood why he’d never noticed him working on the pool before. He was someone who didn’t belong.

“George,” Arlyn said faintly. “Make him go away.”

“There’s nothing you can do to me,” George told John Moody. “I have nothing to lose.”

“Okay,” John agreed. He did not wish to be punched in the face again.

“I mean it!” George said.

“Look, if she wants you here, you’ll be here.”

George went back to Arlie. He lay down beside her, feeling the prickly grass through his shirt.

“Did you kill him?” Arlie said. A whisper.

George laughed. “Nope.”

Arlie closed her eyes.

“Closer,” she said.

George moved as close to her as he dared, afraid he might hurt her.

“Did you see the baby?” Arlie’s voice was so weak it seemed to be coming from another planet.

“You don’t have to talk.”

“I named her for you. You understand, George, why I didn’t tell you.”

“It doesn’t matter.” George felt as though he’d never understood anything in his life, least of all what was happening to Arlie. He felt like jumping off a building, stopping time. Instead, he looked at a blade of grass. He looked into Arlie’s cloudy eyes.

“Don’t fight for her, George. I want her raised with her brother. I want her to be happy. I’m sorry if I hurt you by not telling you. I wanted everything to be simple, but it’s not.”

“It’s all right, Arlie. Stop worrying.”

“Do you think she’ll remember me? She won’t have either of us now.”

“Maybe it’s more important for us to remember her.”

Arlyn laughed. “You’re a funny man.”

“Hilarious,” George Snow said.

The sun had shifted and shadows were pooling, so George lifted Arlyn and carried her back into the house. There was the mother-in-law at the table, looking at him with frightened eyes. And the baby in the stroller. Seven months old. Blond. His little girl. She would grow up here and have everything. Except her mother.

George carried Arlyn upstairs and put her into the bed, then backed out so Jasmine could bathe her and dole out her medicine. The mother-in-law had come up behind him. She looked worried.

“You don’t work on the pool,” she said.

George felt as though he could tear someone apart. “I’m Blanca’s father,” he said.

“What are you going to do?” Diana Moody asked.

“I’m going to come here every day,” George Snow said. “I won’t be in your way.”

“I mean after that. When Arlie is gone.”

George Snow looked at Diana.

“John doesn’t have to know anything,” Diana said.

“He’s not my concern.”

“No.” Diana understood. “He doesn’t have to be.”

Diana had known there was someone else. One night when Arlyn was in horrible pain, Diana had sat on the bed rubbing her back. It was then Arlie had told her mother-in-law she’d done something wrong; she admitted that Blanca wasn’t John’s child. She didn’t even regret it; inside her marriage, she’d been dying of loneliness.

“I understand,” Diana had said to her daughter-in-law. She herself had been lonely in her own marriage. “What’s done is done. Now you have a beautiful daughter, so it’s all for the best.”

Afterward Diana couldn’t help studying the baby, her blond hair, her dark eyes, her singular features, so unlike John or Arlie. She had known Blanca’s father as soon as she saw him. So now she asked the hard question.

“What are you going to do about Blanca?”

“After Arlie’s gone I’m going to drink myself to death. So you don’t have to worry about me stealing the baby.”

Diana Moody put a hand on his arm, which was a terrible mistake. He started to cry. How embarrassing to be embraced by a woman you didn’t know, a woman old enough to be your mother; even worse to be grateful that someone was telling you everything would be all right, that time would heal, even if every word she said was a lie.

ONE AFTERNOON, WHEN THE SKY WAS CLEAR AND THE weather was hot, Arlie called her mother-in-law into her room and asked her to buy a cemetery plot.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Diana said. “That’s for your husband to do.”

“I can’t ask John.”

John Moody had become somewhat unwound. He couldn’t be around sickness, he said. He was no good with it, no good to anyone. Several times Diana had gone downstairs for a drink of water or a Tylenol in the middle of the night and had caught him out on the lawn, walking home in the wet grass. When she’d switched on the porch light, John had blinked in the glare, stunned and guilty, but not guilty enough to stop sneaking to his neighbor’s house in the evenings. Sometimes he spent all night. Diana gave her son the benefit of the doubt. Surely, this nonsense with the neighbor started after Arlie took ill. Marriage was complicated, after all; Diana Moody understood that. Maybe John was reacting to that George Snow fellow coming by every day. Anyway, John was not adept at grief or at showing compassion. The truth was, he was not someone you’d ask to buy a cemetery plot.

“I trust you to do this for me. Find me someplace where there’s a big tree,” Arlie told Diana. “So I can fly away from the top branches.”

Diana asked Jasmine to watch the children. She put on her good black suit and her gold necklace and earrings and she wore a hat that she saved for special occasions. She drove out to the cemetery, stopping to ask directions at the gas station. The life she’d led here once seemed like a dream. The lanes here in Connecticut were winding, green, shadowy. There were fields with stone walls she’d never noticed when she lived here; she’d been so busy with her life, although, frankly, the meaning of that life escaped her now. Dinner parties, tennis, her son, her husband. Not even the time to look at the stone walls, built a century earlier when cows roamed the pastures.

When Diana reached the cemetery she parked and went in. It was the oldest cemetery in town, Archangel. Diana had scheduled an appointment and a Mr. Hansen was waiting for her in the chapel. He was very compassionate, and he offered to drive to the site, but Diana said she would follow along in her own car.

“Single or family?” Mr. Hansen asked.

Diana could not bear to think of Arlie out there all by herself. “Family.”

As she drove behind Mr. Hansen’s van to the far side of the cemetery, she heard rustling in the back of the car. She hoped a bird hadn’t flown in through the open window. She looked in the rearview mirror. Someone was under the blanket she kept in the car for the baby. If a carjacker had suddenly leapt up, insisting she drive to the Mojave, Diana would have been grateful. I will, she would have said. You bet. I’ll drive forever if I can just get out of this mess.

“Who’s there?” Diana said in her sternest voice. Probably not the best tone to take with a carjacker, but clearly the right way to get her grandson to sit up and reveal himself.

“Sam Moody,” Diana said. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see where you were going,” the child said.

The funeral director’s van was slowing down. Diana was pleased to see lots of big trees. Oak, cedar, ash.

“The boneyard,” Sam said.

He really was an odd little boy. Was it possible not to like your own grandchild?

“The cemetery,” Diana corrected.

“I know what happens to things when they die,” Sam said. “Dust and bones.”

“There’s more. There’s a spirit.” Diana felt sick to her stomach. The heat, perhaps, and all this bad luck.

“Yeah, right,” Sam said. “That’s a load of crap.” They had come to a stop. “Nice trees,” he noted. “Can I climb one?”

“Absolutely not.” The funeral director was motioning to Diana. She did have to keep the child in line. “Maybe if you’re good.”

Diana and the boy got out of the car and walked over the grass. They reached a cool, green spot with six plots. “Fine,” Diana said to Hansen. “I’ll take it.”

Sam went to the center of the empty circle beneath a huge sycamore tree. He lay down and gazed through the leaves. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

“Good choice,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”

His voice was childish and reedy and Diana hated herself for not liking him all these years.

“Climb the tree,” she said. “But not too high.”

Sam leapt from the grass, whooping with joy.

“That might be dangerous,” Mr. Hansen advised. Sam was throwing himself onto the lowest branch, not a particularly strong branch from the looks of it. Not a particularly agile child, either.

“I’m buying burial plots,” Diana said. “His mother’s dying. Let him enjoy himself.”

“I suppose,” Mr. Hansen said.

“In your line of work, you must value life enormously,” Diana said.

“No more than anyone else,” Mr. Hansen said.

They stopped at the ice-cream shop on the way home. Diana had a vanilla cone. Sam had a Jumbalina — it was even bigger than the sundae his mother sometimes allowed him. Six kinds of ice cream, butterscotch, hot fudge, and strawberry sauce. All that ice cream made Sam sick; he threw up in the washroom, then was ready to go. He used to think his grandmother was a witch. She was old and she didn’t seem to like him and she had spindly fingers with big knuckles. Whenever she spent the night in the guest room, he would check under her bed after she’d left, looking for bones and poison. Now he was so tired he let her hold his hand on the way to the car, even though he didn’t like to be touched by people who weren’t his mother. He supposed a witch’s touch was all right, it probably washed right off in the bathtub. Or maybe she was a good witch who could reverse time and make his mother well again.

“Can you fix my mother?” he asked on the way home.

“Unfortunately, I can’t,” Diana said.

She was honest. Sam had to give her that. When they pulled into the drive, that man’s truck was there. There was a collie sitting in the passenger seat, sticking his head out the window and woofing.

“Who owns that dog?” Sam asked. He knew a big man sat by his mother’s bedside every day but he didn’t know that man’s name or what he was doing there. He looked a lot like the man who used to wash the windows.

“A friend of the family,” Diana said.

Sam didn’t understand; he was a part of the family and he wasn’t friends with the man with the truck. They went inside. Jasmine was in the kitchen with Blanca, feeding the baby some cereal. When she saw Sam, Blanca let out a chortle.

“Baby baby stick your head in gravy,” Sam said cheerfully.

Blanca laughed so hard cereal came out her nose.

“Is that a nice thing to say?” Jasmine asked.

“She looks like a volcano,” Sam noted.

“You look like a dirty boy, honey. Go upstairs and wash up for dinner.”

Jasmine’s voice was usually strong and pretty; now it sounded shaky. Sam knew about these things, the underside of the world, the part you couldn’t see. Something was more wrong than usual. Out on the patio, Sam’s father was having a drink and looking at the pool. He looked smaller than usual. He didn’t turn around.

“What are we having for dinner?” Sam asked. It was a test. He watched Jasmine carefully.

“We’re having whatever you’d like,” Jasmine said, when ordinarily she just said chili or hamburgers or macaroni. She was too busy to give you many choices.

Sam went through the hall and up the stairs. His mother’s door was open. He had started to feel his mother wasn’t there anymore. When he talked to her, sometimes she didn’t hear him. Sometimes she spoke to somebody who wasn’t in the room. She was like those people she’d told him about, flying above the rooftops. She weighed so little that now when Sam got into bed beside her he felt bigger, stronger. She was made up of bones, but of something more. Maybe it wasn’t all a made-up story when people talked about a spirit. Maybe something else was there.

Sam’s mother liked to look right into his eyes, and Sam let her do it even though her breath wasn’t so good anymore and her eyes were milky. Every time she breathed out there was a little less of her. Every time she spoke there was less as well.

“Tell me a secret,” she’d said to him last night. She was like a bird, hollow bones, little beak, shivery bald head.

The sky had been dark and the lawn looked black. He had thought about the ferryboat ride on the day he found William the squirrel and the angels they’d made in the snow. He’d thought about her long red hair and the fact that even when he was horrible and out of sorts she loved him anyway.

“Just one?” Sam had said.

He’d felt her knees against him, knobby, like pieces of stone.


Her eyes were big. You could fall into them. Mother, Mother, are you there?

“I’m six years old,” Sam said.

Arlyn had laughed a bit. Her laughter sounded like her. It was her. “I know that.”

“But I’m going to stay that way,” Sam confided.

“No, you won’t,” she told him. “You’ll be a big man. You’ll be so tall your head will hit the sky.”

But that conversation had taken place last night, and last night was over. Now Sam stood in the hallway outside his mother’s room and listened to the man who was supposed to be a friend of the family crying. He had no idea grown-ups could sound like that. Sam knew what had happened; he stayed in the hall a moment longer in order to have one more instant of still having her just as she’d always been, safe inside his mind. Then he walked into her bedroom. There was still the smell of her, the shadow of her, the bare skull. The man had his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, as though he’d been caught doing something bad. He had her pearls in his hands. They were big hands and the pearls looked like small black seeds. “She said to give them to you.”

Sam looked at the person in the bed; it wasn’t his mother. It was just a shell, the way his squirrel had been on that other bad day. Sam took the pearls and brought them to his room. In the back of the closet was the box with everything that mattered. The photos, the pictures, the cards, the braid of her hair, his squirrel’s pelt and bones. He wrapped the pearls in a tissue, then put them in the box. He did it carefully. Sam was not like other boys, who would not have taken such good care of a necklace. He was different. He planned on keeping his word. The secret he’d told his mother was true: he was never going to grow up. He refused to go past this day when his mother left him. No one could force him because he’d already decided. He was never going to say good-bye.

Excerpted from SKYLIGHT CONFESSIONS © Copyright 2011 by Alice Hoffman. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Skylight Confessions
by by Alice Hoffman

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316017876
  • ISBN-13: 9780316017879