Mrs. Collins

The baby came a little early, in the first part of May. Natalie was relieved. She had to be out of the house by the end of the month. Edith Deluth took her to the hospital in her old blue Plymouth saying, “Your husband will be able to get leave now, won’t he, Elizabeth? We’re dying to meet him.”

Through a hard contraction Natalie listened for undertones of doubt as she had listened to the comments of her South Falmouth neighbors for months. But Edith Deluth was sincere. A thin, freckled woman in a flowered dress, a straw hat to shield her face from the sun, she was not at all the sort of person Natalie would have befriended in her old life.

The contraction eased. The car proceeded down the highway, through the forest of scrub pine, the smells of pine and salt and sandy earth so intense Natalie thought she might faint. Another contraction gripped, held her, eased. She thought that she, too, would have liked to meet John Collins with his jet black hair and his charming, crooked grin. Handsome and brave, a soldier fighting in Korea, her childhood sweetheart. She thought of him waiting, half a world away in an army tent. He had become real to her. A consolation.

At the hospital, with Edith Deluth looking over her shoulder, she wrote “Elizabeth Collins” on the registration forms, hoping it was the last time. “Who can I call?” Edith begged her.

“My sister’s coming. I called her from the house.” Another lie.

“I’ll stay with you till then.”

Natalie panicked. “Please,” she cried, caught by another contraction before she could formulate a refusal. But it didn’t matter. Contractions came on top of each other now, faster than she could manage them, and a nurse in a white winged cap whisked her into an elevator before she could properly thank Edith or say goodbye.

Hours later the baby squeezed through with an awful tearing. They took it away, gave Natalie something to help her sleep. And then she was awake again, alone in a white room with a window too high to see out of, her enormous stomach tender and deflated. Everything was very quiet, and she felt strange, so light and numb she was afraid something awful had happened—the baby had died perhaps, or maybe she had, maybe this was some terrible, antiseptic afterlife. Then a nurse came in carrying a tiny bundle and said, “Mrs. Collins, here’s your daughter.” Natalie looked to the right and to the left to see where Mrs. Collins might be.

She had been sure this baby would be a boy. She’d planned to call him John after the imaginary John Collins, and when she learned it was a girl she was dismayed.

“Her name is Maura,” she said in answer to the nurse’s question, plucking the name from nowhere, accepting the sleeping child with trepidation. The baby was heavy in her rubbery arms, sleeping, wrapped tightly in her blanket. Only her face showed, a round, pale, delicate face, eyes dreaming beneath shut lids, her mouth pink and sweetly shaped, a tiny, perfect flower above her pointed chin.

“She’s the prettiest girl in the nursery,” the nurse said proudly.

Natalie held the baby up. “Take her away.” She watched the expression on the nurse’s face shift and harden, but the nurse took the child without a word. Elizabeth Collins’s baby. The secret baby, the baby that would belong to her cousin. Carrie Metsger’s baby.

She had thought there would come a time when the lying would stop, when she would become herself again and resume her life.

It had begun the last time she saw O’Grady, in the unsold house in Saugus where they’d taken to meeting. That had been in October, a few weeks after his wife had succeeded in killing herself with an overdose of pills. She couldn’t tell him she was pregnant. He would have pressed her to marry him, and that wasn’t what either of them wanted. He was too rent by his wife’s death, and she didn’t want to live with him—to cook his meals, iron his shirts. She didn’t want to give up her job in the restaurant to stay home and keep his house. Besides, he was a Gentile; her family never would have accepted it. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she knew O’Grady wasn’t the solution.

He had been dazed that last time, a husk in his white shirt with the cuffs hanging loose at his wrists, hollow-eyed. They hadn’t touched each other. She sat on the cream and blue blanket while he stood by the window and told her he was moving to Florida. It was warm there, and his brother had a friend who could help him get into shopping centers. She said nothing. She rubbed her hand across the scratchy blanket, thinking of the coarse, wiry hair on his chest. “I’ll miss you, Nattie,” he said, but the look in his eyes was wary, and he kept his distance. The expanse of polished floor between them was as shiny and treacherous as the surface of a millpond.

At home, the kitchen stank of cooking. “Why aren’t you eating?” her mother demanded, watching Natalie push her kasha to one side of her plate, red cabbage to the other. “Are you sick?”

“I’m just not hungry,” she said, meeting her mother’s suspicious look with her own defiant glare. “I’m just not hungry,” she repeated again and again, or, “I’m dieting,” or, “I’m just feeling a little under the weather.” Twice she was so sick she couldn’t go to work, and when she went back Mrs. Petricelli was solicitous. Her mother fussed and scowled and made chicken soup, the smell of the boiling carcass filling up the little house, squeezing the air out of it. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m just fine.”

But she wasn’t fine. Nauseated and restless, she took to walking home at night by circuitous routes, detouring down to the beach to watch the huge, black, icy breakers. She wandered the little town, looked up into the dark windows of the houses, noticed how many more cars were on the streets now than in her childhood, even late at night, people driving back and forth to taverns and restaurants, back and forth to Boston.

“Where did you go?” her mother asked her in the mornings. “It was after one o’clock when you got in.”

“I had to help out at the bar.” Her old lie, her O’Grady lie.

She walked out Stoddard Road and along the railroad tracks, past the small, shabby, ramshackle houses where the poor Irish had lived. She didn’t know who lived there now. From there she doubled back, cutting straight uphill on Hay Street past the envelope factory and a church, up into the Bluffs, a new, wooded neighborhood of ranch houses and split levels—many of them built and sold by Sam O’Grady—where Carrie and Julius Metsger lived.

Up here, it was peaceful. The roads curved gently, met one another with the courtesy of stop signs. On that cold November night the wind blew the leaves from yard to yard, the bare branches rattled. Somewhere a raccoon tumbled over a garbage can, a dog barked, then quieted. Tired and numb, ready to head home, it was by accident that Natalie turned down Crescent Court and found herself in front of her cousin’s powder-blue three-bedroom. Street after street the houses had all been dark, but here a light shone from behind shut curtains and lit the window pale orange.

Natalie stopped. Who was up? It had to be midnight at least, probably later. Had they left the light on by mistake? Natalie knew the room. It was the big spare room where a child would have slept, if Carrie had ever been able to have a child.

The next night Natalie retraced her steps. The day had been cloudy, and now in the windy dark it began to rain, an icy drizzle sliding from the gray-black sky. Again the light in the child’s room was lit, and again on the third night when Natalie stepped onto her cousin’s immaculate lawn and went up to the window and knocked.

There was no answer. The plump, waxing moon disappeared behind a cloud and reappeared again. At home, the wind would be rattling the loose glass in the windows, would be banging the screen door against its frame. But here everything was snug and tight, the house quiet. Natalie rapped again, and suddenly the light went out and the curtains were flung back and her cousin’s face filled the glass—a thin, frightened, reckless face, its dark eyes deeply shadowed, its hair uncombed and wild.

At the kitchen door, Carrie put her finger to her lips and Natalie said softly, “I won’t wake him.”

“What’s wrong?” Carrie asked.

Natalie stepped into the house, which was warm even on this frosty night; they must keep the thermostat up high. The only light was from the little bulb over the stove, but it was enough to see the well-hung, mustard metal cabinets, the expanses of counter space, the gleaming electric stove with ovens above and beneath. “I was passing and I saw your light. Can I sit down?”

“I’m not on your way,” Carrie said.

Natalie pulled out a chair and sat at the speckled kitchen table, took a cigarette from her coat and lit it. “I was walking,” she said. “I can’t sleep lately.” The smoke curled from her cigarette and hung in a cloud at the ceiling. “How about you?”

“I sleep fine.” Carrie lit her own cigarette, her pink, quilted robe at odds with her haggard face.

“Lucky you,” Natalie said.

The nurses said she had the baby blues, she’d get over it, and though she asked them not to, they kept bringing Maura into the room for her to admire. “Look at her little hands,” they cooed. “Look at her eyes—blue as sapphires!” She had O’Grady’s eyes, bright and warm.

” They’ll turn,” she said gruffly, and looked away.

She was steeling herself to call Carrie, who would send the woman lawyer who would come with a packet of papers and the swaddling blanket Carrie had endlessly stitched. But the hours passed and she didn’t call. A day passed, two days. “She’s lost half a pound but that’s normal,” they told her. “She’s a good little eater. A fine, healthy girl.” Her milk came in and her breasts ached and leaked. The nurses put warm compresses on them, clucked and fussed. Meals arrived and she ate them, doctors came and checked her pulse, said “You’re doing just fine, Mrs. Collins,” and went away again. And all that time there was a blankness. Mrs. Collins was doing fine, but how was Natalie? She didn’t know. Natalie seemed to be buried too deeply inside her to be reached.

A third day passed. They wheeled a cart into the room, and on the cart was a glass box, and in the box was the baby, awake and watchful, her bright eyes fixed on the light of the high, square window. “Here’s your mama, little Maura,” they said, and went away, leaving Natalie alone with her, watching her twitch and blink.

“Hello, Maura,” Natalie whispered. “Poor thing, where’s your mother?” She reached into the box and touched the baby’s cheek. Maura scrunched up her face and whimpered, fussed, began to cry. Her shrill, unearthly voice split the still air open, splintered it. Natalie looked toward the door but no one came. “Shush,” she said. “Sha, sha,” and picked the baby up without meaning to, rocked her against her chest.

At first she had been happy in South Falmouth, the house to herself. In December, when she arrived, nearly all the moorings were empty. The boats had been hauled from the harbor, stored on trailers and great racks covered with canvas. In the mornings the dawn came slowly, an almost imperceptible lightening of the great blackness. Through the rippled glass of the window in the bedroom where Natalie slept, the wide sky processed through every shade of gray, arriving at last at the dim, dirty-white that passed for daylight.

It was a cold, dank, drizzly December. Most of the houses along the harbor were shut up, shutters latched tight against the wind and local kids, although there weren’t many locals. Natalie’s house had a furnace, which was cranky and unreliable, but the family that owned the place had moved back to Boston and were happy to rent it out, and Julius Metsger was happy to pay. It was a biggish house, bigger than the house she lived in with her parents.

She was happy. Cold never bothered her, and she liked the miserable weather, the view of the icy harbor, the big bed. The first morning she woke in the dark and listened to the dybbuk wind howl through the cracks and crevices of the house. She pulled the quilts up over her head, tucked her toes under her nightgown and lay awake, basking in the fury of it, and the sense of emptiness from the drafty rooms—no mother, no father, no aunts and cousins pressing in. No flared skirts and neat ironed blouses, no strapped, high-heeled shoes. Just her old, flannel robe, hot coffee in the percolator, and the black, ruffled water to watch all day as it rose up along the sea wall and withdrew again, as it flung itself against the channel boulders in great, white explosions of spray.

She had a name for herself from the first but not a story—that grew over time in response to the curiosity of the ladies she met in the store, which doubled as a post office and was presided over by Mrs. Malke, a tall, iron-haired woman in a gray dress. She was a woman alone and obviously pregnant in an isolated summer house in winter, no visitors, very few letters. A short, swelling woman with a big, hooked nose calling herself Elizabeth Collins. She couldn’t believe they didn’t see through her.

But they didn’t, or they chose not to. Her story and her gold band seemed enough for them, that and her ability to entertain, to tell a good story, her compulsive barrage of detail and drama a bulwark against their doubt. She was careful not to get too close to any of them, used the public intimacy of her stories to fend off any real friendships, afraid of what might slip.

Only Edith Deluth did she invite to her house. Edith with her pale gray eyes and brittle hair, childless, who endured a brutal marriage to the high school civics teacher. It had been midnight on a miserable Friday in February when a banging on the door woke her.

Edith Deluth hunched on her doorstep, cringing and shivering, clutching together a huge black overcoat that must have been her husband’s. Her face was indistinct in the starlight, but when Natalie let her in she saw its brilliant colors: one eye blacked, a cheek yellowish green, her lip swollen and leaking blood into the collar of her flannel nightgown.

” I’m sorry,” Edith said, as tears seeped from the corners of her swollen eyes.

“Shush,” Natalie whispered, caught between pity and fury, coaxing Edith into a chair, filling the kettle, wrapping ice in a dishcloth for her swollen jaw, fetching a quilt to swaddle the shivering rest of her. She didn’t have to ask what had happened.

Natalie liked the hospital. She would lie and listen to the nurses rustling up and down the hall, doors opening and shutting, someone’s baby fussing. Sometimes women cried out, but mostly it was peaceful, and every day she sank deeper into the white, hospital reverie. Maura had gained her half pound back and more, she made sweet, squeaking noises when she drank her bottle. Her cry was as loud as a kettle whistling, but it quieted when she was walked and crooned to. She would screw her round, puckered face up at a lullaby as though she was memorizing it. The nurses loved her. She had a pink bead bracelet around her wrist spelling out her name, and a tiny pink hat covered her paint brush hair.

Natalie knew she needed to call Carrie, but she didn’t. She drifted from hour to hour, from morning to evening, the world shrunk to her sunny room and the baby sleeping in its open box beside her bed.

On Saturday, though, her time was up. The doctor examined her, listened to her heart, listened to the baby’s heart. He stood over the bed in his white coat, frowning under his sandy moustache, his plump arms folded across his chest. “I understand your situation is somewhat unique, Mrs. Collins,” he said. “Your husband is overseas? You have no other family?”

Did he guess? Did he suspect her tragic, convenient story? She tensed, but his hazel eyes regarded her kindly, waiting.

“I have a friend who will come for me,” she said.

In the plan, after the lawyer took the baby, it would have been Julius who came to fetch her. He would drive her back to South Falmouth, wait while she packed, then take her home. Riding in Edith’s car, the landscape passing like a stage set, she imagined the horror of it—the silence that would have muffled them, the weight of his gratitude and his contempt pressing on her like the stones they used to tie witches to before casting them into the sea.

Edith said, “I tried to call you. Lots of times. They wouldn’t put me through.”

“It wasn’t you. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone.”

“Not your sister?”

“She never came.”

“Not to John?”

Natalie turned toward Edith. Her thin face looked straight ahead at the road, both hands tight on the wheel. “He couldn’t call,” she said. “He doesn’t even know yet–I sent a letter but it takes two weeks.”

“So he’ll write you?”

“Of course.”

“Because Sarah Malke says you get hardly any mail. Nothing from overseas.”

“Sarah Malke is a spiteful cow!” Natalie said as the baby began to cry. “And miserly. Ten cents a pound for flour!” She lifted the baby and tried to comfort her.

Out the window, waves washed and soothed an invisible beach, gulls sang, the day was mild and bright. But inside the car, in the sour, desperate air, the baby cried, Edith Deluth clenched her jaw, and Natalie cooed and rocked, fighting despair. The car pulled up in front of the house. Edith let the engine idle.

“Please come in,” Natalie begged, her arms trembling, afraid she’d drop the baby.

“I can’t,” Edith said very faintly. “I have to pick up Victor’s shirts.”

Inside the house, for the first time Natalie felt really cold, though the day was warm. The air was damp and musty so she opened the windows, letting the breeze in, keeping the baby wrapped up tight in the thin pink blanket the nurses had let her keep. She made a cup of tea, but the milk was sour. She had counted on Edith going to the store for her; there was nothing to eat but rice, a little cheese, some soggy lettuce. The baby cried. Did she miss the hospital, the doting, efficient nurses? They’d given Natalie some formula to take home, a few diapers, a little shirt. But Maura wouldn’t eat. She cried and clenched her tiny fists, scrunched her blue eyes, inconsolable. Natalie shut the windows again, afraid someone would hear.

That night, she slept with the baby in the big upstairs bed. She had no crib, no carrier, no change of clothes. The dark harbor was full of boats, their masts glinting in the moonlight. The water pawed at the sea wall, the halyards rang, the baby twitched in her exhausted sleep and whimpered. Natalie dozed and woke, got up at one to heat a bottle, at three, at four, at six. By eight she was in tears, hungry and wretched. The baby wailed. Natalie’s mind swam and unraveled. At eight-thirty she picked up the phone.

At noon, the car pulled up. Carrie was out the door before Julius could turn off the engine.

It was strange having them in the house: Julius in his gray summer suit, his polished shoes, Carrie in a flowered dress, her long hair pinned up. “What happened?” she said. “This wasn’t what we planned.”

Haggard and barefoot, a bottle in her hand, the baby cradled in her arms, Natalie stared back at her cousin. Carrie put her arms around her.

In the hot, dark space between them, the baby quieted. Natalie could hear Julius’s footsteps, clack, clack, clack up the wooden stairs, could hear the breeze rustling, a door closing. She could hear the sea lapping at the muddy sea wall, sloshing and splashing, as interminable and automatic as love.

“Her name is Maura,” Natalie said into Carrie’s chest.

Carrie took a step back, pulling the baby with her. “We’ve decided to call her Beatrice,” she said.

Rachel Pastan’s short stories have appeared in many magazines. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has won the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award as well as the Arts and Letters Fiction Award. Her first novel, This Side of Married (set in Philadelphia) was recently published by Viking and has been selected for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.