I. Before Becoming Pregnant
When Claude Martin was younger, he owned a forest green MGB. He called that car a death-trap and he treasured it. After he dropped the top, he’d pull on Italian leather gloves, snap them tight at his wrists. Then he’d rev the engine. Listen to it purr.
The steering thrilled him, but it terrified his passengers, especially Ellen Farrell. Her first time in the car, he kept reassuring her as they cruised north from Philadelphia to picnic in New Hope. The narrow road snaked along the banks of the Delaware River. It was a warm, early June Saturday and Claude sported buzz-cut black hair, gold-framed aviator sunglasses, khakis, a burgundy polo shirt. He explained the design of the car. “It’s fluid,” he said. He lifted a hand from the wheel and flapped his fingers like a rudder, trying to illustrate what he was saying about the tie rods and the gears: “It slips from tense to slack. You have to adjust constantly. You need nerve.”
To clarify, he accelerated into a turn. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have everything under control.” The MG flirted with a fishtail, sliding toward the shimmering water. Ellen screamed. Then the car caught, kept its line, growled around the bend. “Hold on!” Claude shouted, the river wind blasting past them.
This was 1974. Claude was twenty-three, smack in the middle of his heyday, and he was wooing Ellen hard. She had on a sky-blue sundress, a cloud-white cardigan, and sandals soled with worn Pirellis. “Heavenly,” Claude would say. He walked through town by her side, watching her admire the red brick houses, the antiques that filled the stores. Something about the quaintness of the place, or the shine of her blond hair, made him think of high school marching band, how he lugged the French horn and lusted after the majorette. When Ellen wasn’t looking, Claude bought her a wooden whirligig. He hid it in the picnic basket until they were on the edge of town, close to the river, sitting on a blanket in the grass. They could see a half-dozen fishermen in waders, casting quietly for shad.
The whirligig was a rainbow-colored propeller atop a short spindle and Claude knelt to present it. “Let’s see it fly,” Ellen said, so he stood and spun it into the air. It shot straight up above them, then floated over the river, settling onto the surface of the brown water like a bright bug. The fishermen were not about to waste time rescuing a whirligig. Claude went out after it, shoes and socks off, his khakis rolled up to his knees. When he slipped and fell, splashing down face-first, the fishermen scowled and Ellen cracked up. He looked back at her, surprised that her laughter sounded so similar to her screaming, full-bodied and rich, a high note hit right.
Soaked, he sat shirtless in the sun, drying, as he told Ellen how, despite the unfortunate crash of the whirligig, he dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot. “I have the perfect build for it,” he said, and anyone could see he spoke the truth. Thick, quick arms and a low center of gravity ready to handle supersonic speeds. A strong compact body designed for cockpits and flight-suits. He looked across the river at New Jersey and talked about the missions he would fly. “F-4s and U-2s. All over the world,” he said. “It’s too bad I’m anti-war.”
Instead of ascending the ranks, he planned to be a commercial pilot, or maybe he would make money in sales and buy beachfront property until he commanded a real estate empire.
Ellen folded her cardigan into a pillow and stretched out on her back. “Do you want a big family?”
Claude turned to her. He hadn’t given a great deal of thought to children. What would he do with children? “A big family,” he said, testing the sound of it. “You mean kids?”
She smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Little people. Like you, only smaller. Then larger.”
He leaned over her. Before they kissed, he said, “One step at a time.”
After that, they had three years together. Three years of laughter, step-by-step and side-by-side. Wedding, honeymoon, baby boy. They named their son Larry. He started small and kept growing, and they kept driving that MG out of the city, into the countryside, where it was easier to dream through their weekends and holidays. They wanted to have another child and soon they were ready to start trying again, but Ellen came down with a sore throat, which turned out to be cancer, and it carried her away, leaving Claude alone with their two-year-old boy.
You have to adjust constantly, Claude told himself, but he could not adjust. You need nerve, he knew, but his was gone. At the funeral, by the grave, holding his son in his arms, Claude said, again and again, “I may not be sturdy enough for this.”
He did not intend to be a man who couldn’t recover, but, as time passed, what he drove and what he dreamed changed, down to the white Taurus taxi of his early fifties. He never became a pilot of any kind. He never bought land and he never bought a house. Instead, he picked up strangers, took them where they wanted to go, gathered in their fares and tips.
Claude could hear Ellen whisper through the sing-song of Larry’s voice. The boy had his mother’s hazel eyes and, early on, Claude made plans for keeping her memory alive in Larry’s mind. He prepared himself for the questions long before they came. Where is she? What was she like? Is she coming back? Claude wasn’t overly mystical, he tried not to spook Larry, didn’t say a word about ghosts. Instead, he mentioned her favorite dress, how well she could throw a baseball, the warmth of her skin, how her neck blushed light pink when she was upset or pleased. He made a photograph album. He tried to be concrete. Still, when they were outside, alone, walking through their northeast Philly neighborhood or just sitting on the stoop, Claude would sometimes point up at the sky. “That’s where she might be right now,” he’d say. “Looking down and watching over. Proud of you.”
Claude did his best and he surprised himself for a while, until he started drinking more. He stayed out later, let Larry spend the nights with cousins and friends. He tried a few sales jobs — insurance, siding, cutlery — before trading in the MG for a taxi. During his first week as a cabby he decided he wasn’t a good father, he accepted it as fact, and he waited for the punishment to come down on him.
Against all odds, Larry grew up kind, good-natured, and sharp. There were so many ways for a kid to go wrong, and yet Larry was a hard-working student with an aptitude for engineering. They had some great days together — Phillies games at Veterans Stadium, the planetarium at the Franklin Institute, cheesesteaks at Jim’s, milkshakes at the Country Club Diner. Still, what difference could such moments make? Most days were not great at all. Claude looked for resentment in his son’s hazel eyes; he looked for disappointment, but he saw only love and adoration he felt he did not deserve.
He allowed himself to believe that Larry was a gift given to him by Ellen. Maybe two years with her had been enough to mold him irrevocably into a good child, beyond the reach of a father’s bad behavior. Two years in Ellen’s hands could change a whole life, Claude knew that much. When Larry was awarded a scholarship by Dickinson College, in central Pennsylvania, Claude felt that he and his son had somehow turned a corner.
A week before Larry went away, Claude bought a six-year-old Malibu — vinyl-topped and tan. He used it to take Larry up to college. He also used it to visit and, during those first two months, he visited often. Weekend after weekend he drove back and forth on the turnpike, four hours roundtrip, to take Larry out for a meal. He’d leave early in the morning. The Malibu could roar past the trucks that ran open-throttle down the Blue Mountains. Near the Susquehanna River, he almost always hit fog. The trucks switched on their flashers and blew their air horns. Claude liked stopping at an exit outside Shepherdstown to call, just to say he was closing in. The road went uphill for a while from there and he rose above the fog. Then he rolled on through it again, down to his son’s door.
They often took drives before they ate. If Larry had time, they’d spend the day in the car. They went south to Gettysburg. They wound along the Susquehanna, up into the Appalachians. The whole state was greener than Claude expected. They sped to Pittsburgh. Altoona, Johnstown, Latrobe, Mount Pleasant. He loved how the Malibu hugged the road. Even more, he loved glancing across at Larry. His son was an inch short of six feet, thin like a track star, a long-limbed hurdler. Claude had to stop himself from being annoying. How did you come out so good? he wanted to ask. How do you keep getting better?
One weekend when the leaves had begun to turn, they stopped at a vista point to watch the colors come. They sat on the warm hood and tapped the backs of their shoes against the bumper as they looked out. In the valleys, people were mining coal, forging steel, pressing paper. It was the sixth weekend in a row Claude had visited.
“Dad,” Larry said, “I’m getting pretty busy with schoolwork.”
“I’m sure you are, son. Dickinson is a serious place. Makes me proud to see you here.”
“Midterms are coming up. I’m worried about falling behind.”
“Don’t worry. I’m driving back tonight. We’ll grab an early dinner and then I’m on the road.”
“I need more time to work, Dad. It’s great that you keep driving all the way–”
Claude put a hand on Larry’s shoulder, not wanting to hear the but and what would come after. He saw plumes of smoke above the low mountains, twisting up into the sky like ropes, attached to nothing. “Say no more, son. From now on, you want a visitor, you let me know. Otherwise, I’ll wait for the vacations, like everyone else.”
A few weeks later, Claude felt the urge to make a spontaneous visit, but he decided to call first. It was early on a Saturday morning and he was driving downtown, toward the art museum, along the Schuykill River. A sculler practiced on the water. Claude pulled over to watch, listening for the splash of the oars. He imagined sculling sometime, but he would go in the middle of the day, the boathouses bright in the light, the sun beating down on his back. He wondered if Dickinson had a crew team. Then he was looking for a pay phone.
“Hello,” Larry said.
Claude could tell right away his son had been sleeping. “Sorry to wake you. It’s me.”
“Dad? It’s not even six yet. Is everything O.K.?”
“I thought I might come up for a visit.”
“I could leave in a few minutes, get there in time for breakfast.”
“This is pretty sudden.”
“I’d like to see you. Plus I feel like driving. There’s a gorgeous day brewing.”
“It’s really a crazy busy time for me, Dad.”
Claude coughed. Then he said, “Got it. Loud and clear. Maybe another time.”
“Yeah, another time would be better.”
As he drove out on route 76, Claude considered making the trip anyhow. Even if he couldn’t see Larry, it would be a pleasure to see the campus, take a walk, learn more about the college. Besides, if he was actually there, at the door, he felt certain Larry would find time to visit. Just before he reached the tollbooth, though, he wasn’t sure. So he turned around.
Claude stayed away from Dickinson, figuring his overdue punishment had begun. But after graduation, Larry moved home for a few years, and they were back to sharing the northeast Philly apartment. They seemed to get along fine. Larry became an independent contractor, a well-educated fix-up man. Claude kept his cab loaded with advertisements for his son, attracting several clients that way. It was a nice arrangement while it lasted. They drank together every now and then, even talked of saving up to invest in a house. Larry could renovate it and they could begin making some bigger money.
Then Larry found Jennifer.
II. How Your Appearance May Change
Larry was twenty-four when he met Jennifer Hollins at a Dickinson alumni party one summer night, downtown in a decaying apartment where the tenants had worked hard to brighten a dreary space. Larry stayed in the kitchen. Large images of baked goods hung from the walls. He liked his spot near the keg, beneath a painting of an enormous blueberry cupcake. Jennifer walked over for a refill and he pumped while she poured. He thought her hair was the color of a pink grapefruit. Her lips were the same color. As he studied the cupcake canvas with her, he speculated about the flavor of the glaze, the number of eggs required, the freshness of the berries, until Jennifer said, “Quit sweet-talking me.”
She followed him out onto the fire escape, where they discussed life after Dickinson. “I’m an independent contractor,” he said. “A handyman.”
“I work in the development office at U-Penn,” she said. “But this summer I’m at Temple, attending a seminar on how to grow endowments.”
Larry tried to guess which side of thirty she was on. He kept quiet.
“It sounds kinkier than it is,” she said.
They looked down at the alley, across at a brick wall, skyward into the city’s haze of lights and smoke. Above them glimmered a thin slice of moon, an off-kilter smile shining through the muck. Larry heard Jennifer inhale before she kissed his cheek. A little peck. The chasteness of it put her in her twenties, he thought. Then it was just her lips, and age left his mind.
He had his hands in her hair and on her back when she stopped him. She stepped away. “I’m too old for you,” she said.
“No, you’re not,” Larry said. It seemed like a childish thing to say, so he added, “You don’t feel too old. You don’t look too old.”
She moved closer again and placed her fingers gently over his lips. “Shut up,” she whispered.
Larry stopped sleeping at home. He stayed with Jennifer in her Manayunk house and he had no desire to be anywhere else. It was a feeling he didn’t want to risk describing, so he kept it to himself. He tried to worry about the age difference. He did the math. She was thirty. When she was forty, he’d be thirty-four. When he was fifty, she would already have been fifty for years. The way he saw it, they’d have a better chance of dying together. They’d be less likely to leave each other alone.
One night, before dinner, his father caught him packing up a box of clothes and toiletries. “What is it with this woman?” Claude asked.
“You’ll like her,” was all Larry would say.
Another night, Claude asked about her age. “She’s that much older?” he said. “Marrying young and early makes sense to me. After all, our time is limited. But marrying someone so much older, that I don’t understand.”
“Who said anything about marriage?” Larry asked.
Then, after Larry had been with Jennifer for three months, he told his father it was time to talk.
“I’m going to like her, right?” Claude asked.
“Let’s hear ‘em.”
“Well, we’re getting married.”
“And,” Larry said, “we’re pregnant.”
Fathers are also expectant, Larry read somewhere. He added a corollary: But not nearly as expectant as grandfathers. Claude began dropping by Manayunk with books and videos. He’d pull up in the Taurus and take the concrete steps two at a time, like a schoolboy home at last. When Larry opened the door, his father would be standing there with the newest material tucked under his arm. “A pregnant fare recommended this,” he’d say. Or, “I heard about this on the radio.” But, really, he just wanted to touch the baby-to-be. He’d put the latest stuff down and reach out for Jennifer’s belly. He reached out with both hands.
Larry watched it happen again and again, like a ritual. Jennifer would practice the relaxation technique she was learning. She took deeper breaths. She straightened her spine. He knew she was imagining a string lightly tugging up on the center of her head. She counted slowly or whispered the word peace to herself as she smiled and moved closer to Claude. “Grandpa’s here,” she said to their growing child. “Give him a kick.”
“Oh,” Claude would say. “Bam! I sure felt that.”
Larry and Jennifer had their own more private ritual. Once a month with their Polaroid. It was Jennifer’s idea. It struck Larry as risky, something like a jinx. What would they do with the photographs if there was a miscarriage? But he didn’t argue. When they got home on the chosen Friday, they hurried to the bedroom. They stripped off their clothes. Jennifer started in the doorway, standing with her back straight against the frame. She wanted him to construct a complete photo-record and he tried to capture her breasts growing heavier, closer to her rounding belly, her skin there and there lining lightly with blue. He focused on the puffiness of her joints, the downy new hair swirling at the corners of her jaw.
The books said sex was OK if it felt OK. The seal was airtight. The baby was in the bag, so to speak. It could even find the rhythm soothing. Larry wanted his future child to recognize his voice from the very start. He sang to it instead of moaning Jennifer’s name: Oh baby baby baby.
III. Dreams and Nightmares
Jennifer had performed the pregnancy test in the bathroom. Her eyes had been on the two small circles and the pink lines that appeared, first one and then the other. It took her a moment to notice that Larry had dropped to one knee on the tile floor. He opened his hand. A penny-sized pink rubber band sat on his palm. “We talked about doing this someday,” he said. “Today is someday.”
Jennifer took the rubber band from him and held it up to get a closer look. “How romantic,” she said. “And what a beautiful Philadelphia diamond.”
“Marry me,” he said.
“These tests can be wrong, you know.”
“Marry me, Jennifer.”
She tried to picture him as her husband. She tried to see him as a father. She wanted an image, a fantasy of the future to float through her mind. What would he look like in his thirties? Would he become a drinker? Would her parents, may they rest in peace, have approved? Would he rough-house the baby too much? Would his ears get hairy? Nothing came to her. She closed her eyes and opened them and she could see only what was in front of her. He was kneeling at her feet. She was standing there, looking down, loving him like crazy.
“Ask me once more,” she said, slipping the rubber band around her ring finger.
Everyone she knew seemed to have a delivery tale to tell. Again and again, people wanted her to hear how birth could be given anywhere. Just like that. There’s no knowing, they said. In these stories, there was desperation and panic, leading up to a critical moment. Then kind strangers appeared from nowhere, bringing with them one happy ending after another. A paramedic calmly issued instructions over a cell phone. The cops switched on their sirens to serve as escorts. The mousy woman eating alone by the door turned out to be an off-duty obstetrician.
Still, she couldn’t stop thinking about the many problems that could develop all at once or little-by-little. Her friends kept the bad stories to themselves, but the books held nothing back. Even in her favorite guide, the longest chapter was called “When Something Goes Wrong” and it began with a warning: This chapter should be read only by those women who have a suspected or diagnosed complication; and even then reading should be confined to the problem at issue. Casual reading could lead to not-so-casual, and unnecessary, worrying.
She tried to skip those pages, but she couldn’t. She read every one.
Her most persistent nightmare started the night Claude brought over the first book. It was after eleven and he’d probably been drinking. He slouched into a kitchen chair, leaned on the table, and began by complaining about his cab. “Cars have become so simple,” he said. “Automatic boxes. Just point and go. No wonder people fall asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, I have developed a system to combat boredom.”
“Vodka?” Larry asked.
“It has to do with bursts of speed, son. I’ll say no more.” He slid the book across the table. “Here,” he said.
Larry paged through it, pausing occasionally to take a closer look at the drawings and charts. “Daunting,” he said. On the front cover, a peaceful pregnant woman sat calmly in a wooden rocker, reading. On the back, a happy, diapered baby crawled toward a bright garden.
“I’ll tell you the kind of book I want,” Claude said. “There could be a whole series of them: ‘What to Expect When You’re Exhausted; What to Expect When You’re Expiring; What to Expect When You Have No Expectations.’”
“Dad,” Larry said. “Let’s be more festive here. What do you think it’s important for us to know at this point?”
“Read the book,” he said.
Jennifer put on a pot of coffee. She believed it was good for Claude to talk about the past. Speech over silence, even if she sometimes kept herself quiet. “Tell us what you remember,” she said. “Please.”
“You would have liked Ellen,” he said. “If she were here, she’d tell you plenty. She’d tell you all about it.”
“I wish I could have met her,” said Jennifer. She watched Larry walk over to massage his father’s tense shoulders. He was careful, using a lighter touch than he used with her. Claude’s bones looked so close to his skin. She smiled when Larry stayed with his questioning: “Come on, Dad. What was Mom like when she was pregnant?”
Claude rubbed his eyes with his palms and spoke slowly. “Everything was different then,” he began. “And she was younger. Twenty-two. I worked and she handled all the arrangements. But I can tell you about the delivery.”
“Tell us,” Jennifer said.
“At first, I was watching through a little round window in the door and I couldn’t see a thing. But one of the nurses was a friend of ours. She got me in scrubs, took me inside, and told me where to stand. Your mother was screaming. I’d heard her scream before, but never like that. Like the whistle from a steam engine, bearing down. Inhuman. It went on and on. There wasn’t room for me to move closer to her, so I just stood there, listening. Eventually, they decided to do a Cesarean. I turned away. Then I turned back. I couldn’t believe how much fluid there was. I watched it splash against the floor. Then I heard screaming again, but it was you this time, and they were lifting you up.”
“Cesarean,” Jennifer said, and the thought scared her, but then she was trying to imagine Larry as a newborn and it shocked her how easy it was to do. Though she couldn’t imagine him older, it took less than a second to see him in a baby’s body, splotchy-pink, squinty-eyed, baggy-skinned, his hair plastered to his soft head, his chubby arms waving in the air, someone holding him aloft. It was just as easy to imagine Claude as a baby. She saw the two of them side-by-side, banging their tiny fists against the table.
That was how the nightmare began. In the weeks that followed, Jennifer would fall asleep and find herself facing the baby twins in various locations — the bathroom, her office, her bed, the supermarket. They liked to take her by surprise. They crawled under the stall door, climbed out of a file cabinet, made fish-faces at her from behind the deli counter. They had many adorable outfits. She, however, stayed stubbornly the same. She didn’t get any younger. Baby Claude and baby Larry were unrelenting, crying and crying until she was so angry that she screamed. No one anywhere heard her. The crying drowned her out.
Still, she poured coffee for Claude each time he came over. “Stay the night,” she’d say. “We’ve got plenty of room. You’ve done enough driving.”
During the third trimester, Larry started working for Kazuo Shiroyama, a forty-eight-year-old recent immigrant who’d decided to make money in martial arts education. He wanted his rowhouse basement converted into a karate studio and he hired Larry to paint, put in mats and mirrors, build a changing cubicle, install a folding partition. There was duct work, re-wiring, and plumbing. Larry drew up plans and followed them step-by-step.
Shiroyama had his office in his sunroom, right off the kitchen. It had tatami floors and a heavy bag. On his first morning of work, Larry found Shiroyama out there pummeling that bag. Those hands can kill, Larry thought.
Shiroyama was barefoot, in blue jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt, his fists and feet smashing into the bag. There were no chairs in the room, just two low tables. One was a desk, clutter-free, except for a thermos and two Japanese tea cups. The other table held a VCR and a TV. An image from a karate tournament was paused on the large color screen.
When Larry walked in, Shiroyama stopped his work-out. He waved Larry over. “Show what you can do,” he said.
Larry raised his fists and hunched like a boxer. He jabbed the bag. It didn’t move much.
Shiroyama used his index finger to push up Larry’s chin. “No hunching,” he said. “Keep your head back. Away from enemy. Now, snap your wrist. Rotate your fist as you hit. Like a corkscrew. This adds torque to the punch.” He demonstrated a slow-motion right jab. His forearm had the veins of a horse leg.
Larry hit the bag twice more. It hurt his hand.
“Better,” Shiroyama said. “Do ten rights and ten lefts. Take your time. Concentrate.”
Shiroyama picked up a black cotton sweater and put it on while Larry jabbed. “I was once a student of Master Ohkawa,” Shiroyama said. “Master Ohkawa shaved his head and went into the Shikoku wilderness alone. He punched and kicked tree-trunks. His feet sharpened into ax-blades. His fists became sledgehammers. His skin grew tougher than bark. I want to make my students powerful like that.” He adjusted his sweater. Then he sat on the floor and rested his arms on his table. “Let’s drink,” he said, pouring out two cups of green tea.
Larry sat across from him. He nodded toward the paused image on the screen. “What were you watching?” he asked.
“Fukuoka, 1986,” Shiroyama said. “I was foolish.” He flicked the remote and the tape advanced.
Whoever shot the video must have stood off at a distance, without a zoom lens. But Larry could see Shiroyama, a black belt around his waist, wailing away on a tall guy, pounding out a quick rhythm. Jab, jab, uppercut, kick. Kick, kick, jab. They were fighting in something like a boxing ring, except it was larger than that, and there were no ropes, just other people sitting around the edges of the mats, cross-legged and cheering. The tall guy wobbled.
“Here I thought the round was over,” Shiroyama said, pointing a finger at the TV.
Larry watched as the younger Shiroyama dropped his hands for a moment. The tall guy leapt at the opening. He straightened up and round-housed his foot into Shiroyama’s temple. Shiroyama seemed to bow right into the blow. It knocked him flat.
“Ouch,” Larry said.
Shiroyama smiled. “Yes,” he said. He switched the set off. “If I had won that fight, who can say? But when you let your guard down, your head is kicked.”
Larry sat on the tatami with his hands around his tea cup. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” said Shiroyama. “Then to work.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Thinking about things I didn’t see coming,” Larry said. “Plus I’m asking everyone these days.”
Shiroyama inhaled. He sipped his tea. Then he twisted his thick fingers together. “I have been married,” he said. “Before I moved to America, my wife took me to Hokkaido. She knew I liked exotic foods, not available here. We ate bear, sea lion, blow-fish, and whale. I thought the bear tasted best. My wife didn’t enjoy any of them. She said there was too much muscle.”
Larry waited for more, but Shiroyama just stared out the windows, toward the rowhouses across the street. “So,” Larry said, “no children?”
Shiroyama untwisted his hands and looked at them closely, as if he hoped to find a baby hidden in his palms. “No,” he said. “No children.”
V. Further Preparations
Jennifer found something charming in Claude’s extensive preparations, but they were not entirely comforting. He told her he always kept an eye out for pregnant women who needed a ride because he wanted to practice, and he liked to show her how well-stocked he kept his cab — his “maternity ward on wheels.” Half of his trunk was filled with zip-locked plastic bags that held skin lotion, baby powder, sugarless candy, polar fleece socks, a set of washcloths, granola bars, a box of raisins. There was a blanket, a gallon of spring water, a deck of cards, a box of diapers, a stack of magazines, a baby-naming book the size of an amulet.
One night, when Larry was late coming home from Shiroyama’s, Claude stopped by, more excited than usual. Jennifer let him feel her belly for a kick. She used the moment to check his breath for alcohol. She smelled coffee, sweat, and sleeplessness. He pulled a stop-watch from his pocket. “Before I came over here,” he said, “I timed a few runs to the hospital. It was a slow night, so I tried a few different routes. I swear I could be an ambulance-driver. You want to see how fast we can get there from here?”
“I don’t think so.”
Claude clicked the stop-watch on and off. “Is Larry still at the karate-man’s?” he asked.
“He’s spending a lot of time there, isn’t he? Can you explain that to me?”
“There’s a lot I can’t explain,” Jennifer said. She was tempted to go on. I can’t explain why you don’t get your own life. Or why I tolerate your trembling hands. Nothing could be easy for Claude, she knew. He was reaching out, wanting only to be part of the family. She wanted to be able to trust him. Larry liked to say that the pregnancy was making Claude more hopeful, better than he’d been in years. Maybe that was true. But maybe it was making him more unstable.
She inhaled. Exhaled. “Can I get you some coffee or anything?”
VI. Choosing the Right Exercise When Pregnant
During lunch breaks, Shiroyama occasionally gave Larry lessons. One day, Larry was walking outside to his truck when Shiroyama waved him into the sunroom office. The VCR was running again. Larry didn’t think this tape had anything to do with the martial arts, unless it was a documentary about Master Ohkawa’s wilderness. The trees on the screen did not appear threatening — they were thin-trunked, short, bent like old rice farmers, surrounded by raked silver sand. It would have been cruel to disturb them with kicks and punches. There were three small gray boulders in a line. A woman’s voice talked high and sweet as the camera moved. Larry didn’t understand a word she was saying.
Shiroyama held the remote in his hand, but he let the tape play on for a few minutes. When the camera panned over to a red wooden gate, he switched it off.
Larry noticed a slight hunch to Shiroyama’s back. “Japan?” he asked. “Your wife talking?”
“Yes,” Shiroyama said, standing straighter. “Correct.”Then he set the remote down and picked up a pair of pads, a small version of the leg pads worn by hockey goalies. He strapped them to his forearms, held them at chest level, and told Larry to swing away. After the first two punches Shiroyama shouted, “Come on! This is not tai chi! This is karate school!”
Larry kept swinging. “Yoisha!” he shouted, as he had been taught.
“Better. More with the left. And breathe.”
Shiroyama seemed to glide around the room as Larry lumbered after him, punching at the pads, until Shiroyama said, “Stop. Good. You are becoming stronger. I may need your help with advertising. It will involve an outdoor practice, something for people to see. Will that be all right?”
“Sure,” said Larry.
That Friday, Jennifer picked up the Polaroid herself. “You get naked first this time,” she told Larry.
She directed him to the doorway. “OK, now pretend you’re pregnant.”
He filled his belly with air. He tried to expand.
“Pretend you’re holding the baby,” she said.
“Toss me a pillow.”
“No props,” she said.
Larry didn’t know what to do with his hands. He imagined one holding the baby’s head, another holding the back. He spread his fingers wide. The flash popped. Jennifer pulled out the developing picture and tossed it onto the comforter. She aimed at him again.
“The baby’s crying,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” said Larry. He moved his hands closer to his body. He thought of what he’d seen other fathers do. “I’m bouncing the baby now,” he said. “Did you hear that? It just burped.” Larry grinned and made a funny noise with his lips. He moved his hands up to his shoulders. “Now I’m giving it a piggy-back ride.”
“You have no idea how small the baby will be,” Jennifer said, setting the camera on her nighttable.
Larry stepped over to her and reached for her blouse, but she stopped his hand. She lifted it away from her buttons and then she took his other hand, too. “What are you doing to yourself?” she asked. “They’re even worse today.”
The knuckles of his index and forefingers were scabbed, swollen, bruised dull brown and purple.
“Sledgehammers,” he said. “Shiroyama says I’m getting stronger.”
She pressed down on two knuckles at once. “That must hurt,” she said.
“It does. But you shouldn’t have to be the only one dealing with pain.”
She kissed the knuckles, lightly. “You and your crazy dad,” she said. “What have I gotten myself into?”
VII. How You Might Feel
Claude came home late after another lousy night on the road. The fares had been fine, but the passengers had needled him. An extremely fat man flagged him down on Castor Avenue for a ride to Atlantic City. The guy smelled like smoked fish and he talked the whole way about his kidney surgery. “That’s something you don’t want, man,” he kept saying. “That doctor stuck his stethoscope right up my dick. Man, that knocks the top off your skull.”
For the trip back to Philadelphia, Claude’s passenger was a thin, bitter gambler. “The bastards cleaned me out,” was this guy’s refrain. “I never had a chance. I remember when the Jersey shore was a place to bring your family. You remember that?”
Claude kept quiet and he was happy when he parked at home and he was happier to find Larry’s message waiting for him. “Hope you’re out having fun, Dad,” the message said. “I was going to stop by in the morning. I want to talk about a few things. Call and let me know if it’s a bad time.”
Claude decided he should go right to sleep so he could wake up early and clean the apartment. He sat on the couch and thought about how long it would take, how the kitchen would require the most work. He poured himself some bourbon. The apartment had never looked so messy when Larry lived with him. Maybe in the morning he could run to the supermarket, buy some cleansers, a new mop, food for breakfast. Some large trash bags wouldn’t hurt either. He poured more bourbon. He stretched out on his back, crossed his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes. He tried to remember the last time Larry had visited. It had been months. What did he want to talk about all of a sudden? It couldn’t possibly be good.
The knocking was the next thing Claude heard. He got up from the couch, still wearing his blue jeans and t-shirt from the night before. He let Larry in, said, “I’ll be right back,” and then hurried into the bathroom. He called to his son through the door while he pissed. “I’ve fallen behind on my chores,” he said.
“I can see that,” Larry said.
Claude glanced at himself in the mirror, wet his hair, combed it, washed his face, brushed his teeth, pulled a sweatshirt over his t-shirt. “I planned to clean,” he said. “I was going to cook breakfast. I was hoping you’d bring Jennifer.”
“I want to talk a bit about Jennifer,” Larry said.
Claude came out of the bathroom and sat back down on the couch. He plumped up the cushions around him. “Am I about to get scolded?”
Larry sat across from him, in the barca-lounger. He did not recline. “Dad,” he said, “we love your coming by. But Jennifer’s tired all the time. She’s a little on-edge–”
“Say no more. I understand.”
“We still want you to come over. We’re always happy to have you spend the night. We just need you to call first.”
“Roger, dodger,” Claude said. He wanted to say whatever would help them to move on. He would take what he could get. Accept what he knew he deserved. Gladly. But he didn’t feel up to discussing it. “I could make some coffee,” he said. “I think I’ve got orange juice.”
Larry leaned forward. “Look, Dad, I’m not trying to give you a hard time. I just want everything to be all right between you and Jennifer. We’ve got years ahead of us–”
Claude wondered what Ellen would say at such a moment. She might tell him to keep calm. Maybe she would brush a hand through his thinning hair and encourage him to apologize. Say you’re sorry then stand up and rustle something out of the kitchen.
Larry kept talking. “Jennifer wanted me to be sure to thank you again for all the great stuff you’ve given us.”
“I understand,” Claude repeated. “You’re coming through loud and clear.” Then, before he could stop himself, he went on. “You shouldn’t blame Jennifer, though. Say it yourself, like you said it before. I’m busy. It’s not a good time. You messed up with one kid, you don’t get another chance with mine.”
“Dad, that’s not what I’m saying.”
Claude stood up. He folded and stacked the newspapers that were open on the coffee table. He stuffed a few crumpled napkins into his pocket. “You think you’re ready to be a father? You don’t know what the hell you’re in for, son.”
“I know I don’t know,” Larry said.
Claude walked into the kitchen to get the broom. When he started sweeping the floor, he saw his son stand up and come closer, still so goddamn handsome, still somehow unscathed, at least as far as he could see.
“Who could ever really be ready?” Larry asked.
Claude did not stop sweeping. “Not me,” he said. “Not me. OK? But you do the best you can.”
Larry stepped into the middle of the kitchen and stood by the pile of dust Claude was gathering. “I’m not saying it the way I wanted, Dad.”
Claude opened a cabinet and pulled out a dustpan. His head ached His throat felt dry. He squatted down, gripping the broom lower. “Just tell me what you want me to do,” he said. “I’ll do it. Tell me what you want me to stop doing and I’ll stop.”
“All right, Dad,” Larry said, and he squatted down, too. “I want you to give me that dustpan.”
Claude handed it over. He wasn’t sure if anything was better, but, together, he and Larry cleaned the whole apartment.
VIII. What May Concern You
A week later, Jennifer sat on the steps in front of her house. It was an early October Saturday, the sun bright in a clear sky, and it was the first weekend of her maternity leave, two weeks before her due date. The baby had dropped and she was having mild contractions more frequently. She looked up and down the street, reminding herself how pleased her parents would have been with her Manayunk investment — she had bought the small stone house with the money that passed from her father to her mother to her. They would have liked the fact that the house was too big for one person, sized for a family of three or four. The neighborhood was safe and it seemed to grow more popular — and more valuable — each year. First some antique stores had moved in, then came galleries, restaurants, arts and crafts festivals, wine bars, bike races. While she sat there, a few bikers in colorful spandex pedalled by, training, maybe, getting their exercise before stopping on Main Street to grab a snazzy brunch.
Larry was off helping Shiroyama set up some sort of outdoor karate practice. “It’s an advertisement,” he’d said before he left, dressed in his new uniform — a pair of canvas pants, a heavy canvas top, and a white belt. A gi, he called it. She called it goofy. SCHOOL OF SHIROYAMA was sewn in large purple letters across the back of the top.
Her parents might have had some concerns about Larry. She could hear her father: A handyman? He’s still a boy! What are his prospects? Her mother would have nodded in agreement, but then she would have looked on the bright side: He’ll be good at fixing things. The imminent arrival of a grandchild would have soothed them both. Like her father-in-law, they would have quickly become over-anxious about the baby, pushy, in their own way, reaching their hands out, too. She would have known how to deal with them, though.
The baby squirmed, interrupting her thoughts. It felt like she was being kneaded from inside. The baby wanted more space and Jennifer was sympathetic. She was waiting for Claude to pick her up so they could drive over and see Larry’s practice, but she was tempted to skip it. She could tell Claude to go on without her and she could waddle down to Main Street by herself, order eggs benedict, read the paper while she sipped spearmint tea and ate a few chocolate-dipped biscotti.
The baby squirmed again and Jennifer looked down the street to see the white Taurus turning the corner. She stood up slowly.
As soon as Claude stepped out of the cab, he started doing some gibberish in the air with his arms. “Hai-yah!” he said. He tried a clumsy kick and almost knocked himself off his feet.
Jennifer kept her distance, walked past him, and climbed in carefully. She watched him slip in behind the wheel. When he reached across her, trying to help her buckle the seat belt, she waved his hands away.
“Look,” he said. “I want you to know I understand.”
Jennifer snapped the belt around her. “Understand what?”
“Larry and I had our long talk. I have no intention of being a burden, I want you to know that.”
She didn’t say anything. She was checking out the cab. The stopwatch dangled from the rearview mirror by a red string. The meter was off. Laminated licenses and certificates were taped to the dashboard and, in those official photographs, Claude looked at least ten years younger. How different he could have been, Jennifer thought. How different he had been. “OK,” she finally said. “Thanks.”
They drove in silence toward Charles Peale Park where the practice was going to take place, near a playground, right beside Bethany Creek. Jennifer didn’t enjoy watching Claude drive. It made her nervous, especially the way he rubbed at his eyes. On Roosevelt Expressway, he passed two SEPTA buses and each time he held his breath. She heard him exhale when they pulled in front.
“Did you ever date anyone after Ellen?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “I went out on some dates.” He smiled at her, clearly glad to be talking again. “I wasn’t celibate. But I wasn’t in great shape, either. One woman I liked was a secretary at Thomas Edison High School. Larry wouldn’t remember her. ‘You’re a real project,’ she said to me. ‘I’m looking for an easier time.’ I told her I was looking for the same thing. But it went nowhere.”
“You should keep trying.”
“And I should stop drinking. Make some commitments to myself. Move on. I know.”
It struck Jennifer as odd that Claude could sometimes seem younger than Larry. He was like a child, in a way. She saw it in his skittish gaze, a second of sulking, the shrug of his bony shoulders. She was learning more and more about feeling vulnerable. Soft. Exposed to so much possible harm. She stared at Claude, trying to predict where his vulnerability was leading him. “There’s someone out there for you,” she said, as convincingly as she could.
“Ellen said that, too. She tried to joke about it. Her friends who visited the hospital didn’t know they were being judged. Ellen tried to pick out a good mother for Larry, a good wife for me. None of her friends passed the test in the end. But she did like one of her nurses.”
“Her name was Diane. There was nothing wrong with her. She wanted to help me get better.” He exhaled, took a hand off the wheel, and rubbed at his eyes again. Then he went on. “I don’t know,” he said. “Some things only happen once. Other things happen over and over.”
“Maybe you need a different job,” Jennifer said. “Weren’t you going to be something else?”
They turned onto Bethany Creek Boulevard, a few blocks from the park. There was a traffic light ahead and Claude hit the gas, trying to catch the green. He said something, but the engine drowned it out. ennifer watched the speedometer. She breathed, closed her eyes and opened them. The cab kept accelerating. She glanced at Claude’s foot and saw him flooring it.
“Slow down, Claude,” she said.
His foot did not move. “Relax,” he said. “We’re clear. We’ll make it.”
The traffic light looked far away and it was already yellow. When they entered the intersection, two cars had to brake hard to stop in time. Jennifer started screaming at Claude to pull over and she kept screaming until he did.
Traffic moved past them and the cars that had skidded to a stop were gone. She looked across at Claude. He was leaning over the steering wheel, his forehead on his folded arms. She saw the ridges of his spine lift and fall. The two hearts inside her were racing. She climbed out of the cab and stood on the side of the road. Cars sped by, but she barely noticed. She saw the rough asphalt she was standing on. Small bits of rock stuck in tar. Pieces of broken glass. A paper cup tumbling.
Then Claude was in front of her, holding his hands up, like someone being robbed. “I’m sorry,” he was saying. “Are you all right?”
She stepped further away, from the asphalt to the grass. “How can I let you near my child? If you’re going to be a goddamn, crazy–” She paused, gazed at the traffic light, watched it change. “Idiot,” she said. “How?”
One of Claude’s eyelids twitched. “I’ll be better,” he said.
“What if I can’t believe that?” she said. Then she turned her back on him and started walking toward the park.
IX. Near the End and the Beginning
When it was time to start, there were eight other karate students in the park with Larry. He didn’t know whether they had been invited or enlisted, but he did know they were all kids and he felt surrounded. He waited in vain for more adults to arrive. Then Shiroyama was leading the way to a space between the batting cage and the picnic area. “Three lines of three,” Shiroyama said, and Larry stood in the back corner, looking over the group. They all seemed thin to him, still growing, their bodies struggling to keep up. Two of the kids must have come from elementary school. The rest looked like high-schoolers. Three of them had rolled in on skateboards. One was skin-headed, another was as bearded as a mountain man. There was an Asian girl and a short, albino boy. The two grade school kids might have been speaking Russian. Larry thought he heard them say Da a few times.
Shiroyama’s gi had a black belt striped at the ends with gold and he had tied a red bandanna around his head, like a kamikaze pilot. He led them through a long series of stretches, then basic warm-up exercises. He counted some off in English and some in Japanese. When he hit ten, Larry and the kids called out, “Yoisha!”
Once they were limber, Shiroyama jogged with them to Bethany Creek. On the way, Larry turned to the student beside him. It was the albino kid, his skin whiter than the canvas gi. Larry introduced himself and said, “So, what attracted you to karate?”
“I told Shiroyama I wanted to study Japanese culture,” the kid said. “The truth is that people give me shit. I want to give some back. I’m Darryl.”
Larry nodded. They crossed the bike path and clambered down to the creek’s edge, where Shiroyama took off his sneakers and socks and began walking out into the water. Larry said to Darryl, “That water’s got to be freezing. It’ll ice over in a couple weeks.”
Darryl already had his shoes off and was peeling off his socks. He didn’t look up. “What are you,” he said, “a pussy or something?”
Larry knelt down and undid his laces. Before he stepped into the water, he looked back for Jennifer and Claude. A bunch of people had gathered to watch, but Larry didn’t see his wife or his father and he wondered where they were. He hoped they’d show up soon because he wanted them as witnesses. He also wanted that blanket from his father’s trunk.
At first, the water seemed cold. After a minute, it was bone-chilling, but the kids weren’t complaining. Instead of cursing, they periodically shouted, “Yoisha!” Meanwhile, Shiroyama was striding ahead. When the water was an inch or two above his knees, he turned around, waiting for the lines to re-form. Then he started in with the punching drills. He counted them off, only in Japanese, and he counted much louder than he had on land, each number echoing from shore to shore.
Larry punched into the air and tried to stop his teeth from chattering. I’ll leave when I can’t feel my feet, he told himself. He peered over his shoulder at the growing crowd and saw no sign of Jennifer or Claude. Then he looked around at the kids. He expected some of the youngsters to drop out, dash blue-lipped and shivering to their parents. But the kids were going at it. They were actually an excellent advertisement, rosy-cheeked, their arms moving in time, their big white sleeves snapping in the breeze. They shouted together and Shiroyama shouted back.
Kicking drills began and Larry whipped his feet out of the water. The school of Shiroyama was suddenly full of dangerous Rockettes, splashing on the beat. Larry no longer felt so cold. He wondered what, in the years to come, he would watch his own child do. What bizarre activities? What unpredictable deeds? He couldn’t wait.
“Yoisha!” he shouted.
Claude was walking, following behind Jennifer as she plodded ahead on her unstable ankles. He wanted to explain what he had done, but he couldn’t, not even to himself. He didn’t know where to begin. Why bother to keep walking? She’d tell Larry the latest. Who could blame her? Your crazy father tried to kill me. It’s a miracle we aren’t dead. What could he say in his defense? Another failure. Another mistake. If I were my son, he thought, I’d tell me to get lost.
Explain, he told himself.
He had no trouble catching up to her. “Please wait,” he said. “Just let me talk for a second.”
She turned to face him, as close to him as she had been in the Taurus. “We’re already late,” she said. “So talk if you’re going to talk.”
He was tempted to reach across to her, but he dug his hands into his pockets. “You asked if I was going to be something else. Well, I was. And if I had everything to do over again–”
“It’s not like you’re out of time, Claude. You’re not an old man.”
“I’m not a strong man, either,” he said. “That’s the thing. I used to think I was strong, but I’m not.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with speeding through a red light.”
He didn’t know exactly how to make that connection either, but he went on anyway. “Larry’s strong. You may not know it, but he is. It’s something that always amazed me. The way he manages–” He paused to clear his throat. “The way he manages to go on.”
Jennifer didn’t say anything, but Claude saw her shift her feet. She wasn’t going away. He knew she might simply be uncomfortable, but it looked to him like she was settling in. Thinking. In any case, she was listening.
“The truth is there were days I resented his strength. I was grateful for it, too, but sometimes it pissed me off. I didn’t understand how he couldn’t have been touched by all that had gone wrong. I wanted him to know what it was like for me.”
“So,” Jennifer said, “if we got killed in a car crash, he’d know then? You’d teach him what it was like to lose a wife, a baby, and a father?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, shaking his head. But he could see how she was thinking and it sickened him. He had no idea how to convince her she was mistaken.
He watched as she crossed her arms above her belly. She looked away from him and away from the street, out over the grass, in the direction of the creek. “What am I supposed to say to you?” she asked. “What do you want from me?”
That he could answer. “Don’t tell Larry about this. Say you’ll give me another chance. That’s all I want.”
She kept gazing out at the creek and Claude waited. He remembered that New Hope afternoon by the Delaware River, years ago, his silly gift splashing into the water, his splashing after it, clear proof, even then, that everything was not under his control. What a stupid thing to have thought, let alone said! One step at a time. He had said that, too. A nice wish for another world, it turned out, but where he lived the steps blurred together. People lost their footing. They rushed and stumbled and fell.
And yet, he hadn’t done anything wrong back then, and he didn’t want to do anything wrong now. He’d gotten carried away in the car and he was sorry, but nothing like that would happen again. Ever. He felt certain. He could right himself. He could move forward. Improve.
He tried not to stare at Jennifer, but he couldn’t help noticing the hard line of her mouth, the set of her jaw. She was strong, too, and he realized she might very well refuse him; he could easily imagine her saying, No. I’m sorry. If it were just me, then maybe, but it’s not just me, so no. It was a punishment he could understand. She’d speak softly, a whisper, the words hard to hear above the rush of passing cars, and his knees would buckle.
Jennifer uncrossed her arms and massaged the back of her neck with one hand. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “Could you get the car? Please. I’ve had enough walking for now.”
Not long after that, Jennifer and Claude were watching Larry, who was kicking and punching in Bethany Creek. Jennifer wondered over these two men in her life: My husband’s playing in the water with a bunch of children and my father-in-law’s worried about being told on.
She watched as the demonstration ended — the splashing stopped, the students bowed to their teacher, and the teacher bowed back. The baby inside her seemed inspired by all the activity. Kicking, punching, trying to stretch out. People around her were clapping, so she joined in, smiling as Larry came running to her, barefoot, his sneakers in one hand, his other hand waving. He actually looked dapper and brave in his goofy gi. “Did you see that?” he asked.
Claude spoke up. “We were a little late, son. It was my fault. I–”
Jennifer cut in. She wasn’t yet sure what she would say about what had happened and she didn’t want to be rushed into it. “We saw,” she said. “You looked great.” She paused to kiss his lips. “But it must have been cold. You’re shivering.”
Larry turned to his father. “I wouldn’t mind grabbing the blanket from your trunk, Dad. Could I borrow the keys for a second?”
“I’ll get it for you,” Claude said. “You put something on your feet and talk to your wife.”
He jogged off, leaving the two of them together. They walked to a picnic table, sat side-by-side on a bench, facing the creek, and while Larry slipped on his shoes and socks, Jennifer wrapped an arm around him, leaning close to share her warmth.
Larry looked up from his laces. “Were you two all right?”
Jennifer saw the teacher coming toward them, a small backpack slung over his shoulder. “I’ll tell you about it later,” she said.
Larry stood in time to say, “Honey, this is Kazuo Shiroyama, my client and teacher.”
“It’s nice to meet you at last,” she said, and she started to stand.
“Please,” Shiroyama said, “don’t get up. The pleasure is mine. Your husband does excellent work. And he is also an excellent student.”
Jennifer liked the way Larry blushed at Shiroyama’s praise. “Let me ask you this,” she said. “Will my husband’s knuckles be OK?”
Shiroyama held his hands out in front of her face, turning them so she could see both sides. He held them still. They were not bruised or swollen, but they looked powerful. “His knuckles will be fine. Stronger than before.” Then he pointed at her belly. “When does the little one arrive?”
“Soon,” she said.
Shiroyama nodded. “I don’t pay your husband enough. I will give your child free lessons, when the time comes, if you approve.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Jennifer said. “Thanks for the offer, though. We’ll see. Your school certainly seems to be off to a good start.”
“It’s too early to say. But I want to record some of this morning for my wife. I will do sparring exercises with a few of the younger students.” He opened his backpack, pulled out a digital camera, and offered it to Larry. “Would you mind?”
Just then Claude, out of breath, returned with the blanket. From her place on the bench, Jennifer looked on as the three men tried to communicate. Larry took the blanket and draped it over his head, like a poncho. Shiroyama kept the camera by his side. “This is my father,” Larry said, resting a hand on Claude’s shoulder.
For a moment, Jennifer imagined the generations reversing, the father becoming more like the son, gaining surprising strength. She pictured her father-in-law not as a toddler and not as he was now, but as a young man, back before those cab license mug shots, back when he was a new husband about to become a parent, full of love, the world so open, promising more.
But she couldn’t help seeing how Claude slouched, tired, unsure of himself, unsure of where he stood. He was looking at her, as if for a cue. All right, she thought, looking back at him. She’d try to believe in him and his desire to change. She’d try to forgive him, too, hope that he’d remember how to love without smothering. “Mr. Shiroyama would like some film of his kids,” she said to him. “Why don’t you give it a shot? The practice might come in handy.”
Shiroyama held out the camera. “Please. I would be grateful.”
“How does it work?” asked Claude.
“You can figure it out, Dad,” Larry said. Then he sat back down beside Jennifer, wrapping her in the blanket, the soft blue fleece more than big enough for them both.
“Like this,” Shiroyama said, showing Claude what to do.
Claude lifted the camera to his eye, sighted through it, held his finger above the red button.
“That’s it,” Shiroyama said. “Try it out on your family. You have quite a son. A lovely daughter-in-law. A grandchild on the way. You are a fortunate man.”
Jennifer cupped her hand over her belly, searching for that new heart beat fluttering beneath her palm. That extra pulse. Could the baby hear the young students laughing over by the creek? Could it hear Claude fiddling with the zoom lens, the sigh he made when he put his knee down on the grass, the sound of his voice when he said, “OK, you two, I mean three, smile.”
Jennifer wanted to smile for him, but she was thinking of all that had gone wrong and all that still might. Claude was so fragile and Larry was so young. She didn’t feel afraid, but the responsibility was overwhelming, the burden and extent of it still growing, far larger than she ever could have expected. She inched even closer to Larry on the bench. He was no longer shivering. She caught the scent of gasoline, either from the creek water or the cab blanket. She didn’t mind the smell. It felt good to be pressed up against her strong, solid husband, her open hand on his thigh.
“Come on,” Claude said. “Smile.”
“I’m trying,” she said. Then she felt heat and a silver brightness push behind her eyes. Pressure bearing down. She leaned back and inhaled, counting the seconds. It hurt and it didn’t hurt and she thought it might never stop. “I’m going to have a baby,” she said.
Larry leaned over to kiss her cheek. “I know,” he said.
She laughed at that, and smiled. “Soon,” she said. “Maybe right now.”
Larry jumped up and Claude quickly rose to his feet, handing the camera back to Shiroyama.
“Can I help?” Shiroyama asked.
“No, no,” said Larry. “Thanks. We’ll be all right.”
Shiroyama stayed where he was, but he kept filming. It would be part of his gift for the family. He focused carefully, following the three of them as they walked away, side-by-side — father, mother, grandfather — moving off together as best they could.