Navigations in the Gene Pool

[img_assist|nid=5881|title=Solitaire by Anne Buckwalter © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=199]Nature trumps nurture. Ellen believed it even before science arrived at the same conclusion, believed it even after science changed its mind again. Believes it now. Even so, she hadn’t expected her adult daughters to divide between them every characteristic she’d found objectionable in their father. Ardis and Jilly, oil and water, but each in her way Artie’s child.

Ellen grabs a towel and steps from the shower, notes the stretch marks silvering her belly, more prominent since she shed those ten pounds. They never did fade much, and now they’re like ski trails seen through spring ice. Any minute Jilly will arrive with her pal Renée and Renée’s toddler, Hannah Rose. (Or not. Jilly’s relationship with the clock is casual.)

When she was pregnant with Ardis, Ellen floated the name Hannah, but Artie vetoed it as too biblical. Typical Artie. If they’d had a son he’d have insisted on Joshua Arthur Draper, Jr., found some obscure reason why Joshua was not actually biblical. Back then, before you could find out the sex ahead of time, you chose a name for a boy, a name for a girl. Two arguments instead of one. Artie knew who he was, though; you’d have to give him that. And early on he knew he was not meant to be a dad. After he fled New York for Miami, Ellen came to prefer the clear dimensions of single parenthood. She’d kept her job at the ad agency through both pregnancies, and that was good—no back-to-work adjustments. As the most skilled of the department’s artists, she liked her job and earned a reasonable wage. Once a year Artie sent a check to cover child support, except when he didn’t. Eventually he’d make it up, and she let it go at that.

Ellen turns on the hair dryer and scrunches her waves into place. In the mirror her skin is blotchy and her highlights are inching toward unappealing ochre. Or maybe it’s just the light. Artie Draper, what a piece of work. Among other things, Ardis inherited his contentiousness. When Ellen met him in 1965, she’d found this trait admirable, a nice change from the men in Missouri who took pride in their reticence. It soon got old, but not soon enough, not before she married him. Cock-sure and proud of it. First-class bullshitter, ditto. At times Artie would catalogue his flaws as a kind of foreplay, chuckling over them with a dreamy fondness as he and Ellen snuggled on the sofa. It was arousing in a weird way, like watching masturbation.

Artie still believes Ellen came up with the name Ardis as homage. In truth she’d kept it in mind since her teens, when she went through a phase of reading British novelists. It seemed at once both sturdy and exotic, a fine name for a firstborn daughter. But perhaps it had been unwise, so similar to “Artie”, encouraging Ardis to identify. When she’s annoyed, which is often, her voice takes on Artie’s bullying edge. She looks like him, too, something on the plus side. At thirty-one she’s tall and fair, her jutting chin either noble or assertive, depending on the situation. This is probably an asset in her job as an oncology nurse.

Ardis is married to a recreational hunter, and animal parts—haunch, chops, the occasional liver—dominate her diet. She defends this by pointing to something she read that links diet to blood type. Ardis is Type O, the most ancient. The literature, as Ardis puts it, ties Os genetically to their hunter-gatherer ancestors. They require meat. Grains and vegetables are dietary no-nos for the roving O. Ellen is the same type. Her failure to adopt Ardis’ regimen is a bone of contention. During increasingly frequent raids on her mother’s East Side walk-up, Ardis thinks nothing of flinging open the refrigerator to inspect for signs of conversion. “Mother,” she says, shaking her head, “it’s small wonder you’re anemic.”

Ellen has been unapologetically vegetarian since college, though she cheerfully cooked meat for her daughters when they decided they were not. Except for a bum knee from an old ski accident and a mild tendency toward anemia, she enjoys excellent health. This bugs Ardis no end. “We’re talking long term here, Mother,” she says. Lower the voice an octave and you’d swear it was Artie.

A few years after he decamped, Ellen let her daughters adopted a cat from the city shelter. They chose an amiable tom that Ardis named Moosey. Feeding and litter box duty were part of the deal, and the girls were pretty good about it, especially at first. But when Moosey developed urinary problems, it was Ellen who took the bathmat to the basement laundry every night. She paid astronomical vet bills without complaint until Moosey expired on a late-night emergency visit to Animal Medical Center.

“You never wanted him in the first place,” Ardis accused, stoically dry-eyed while Ellen bawled along with Jilly in the backseat of the cab.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Ellen sobbed, but even as she spoke it was being writ large on the tablet of her failings.

Yes, Ardis is tough—but easier to take than Jilly, still demanding as a two-year old, chronically broke, and a newlywed for the second time in six years. And where the heck is she, anyway? It’s after four already. Both of her husbands, past and current, are easygoing men, attractive in the same athletic, balding sort of way. Jilly’s spoiled-brat behavior seems to attract men, but it troubles Ellen. She’d been an attentive but even-handed parent, encouraging kindness and a sense of responsibility. Ardis is responsible. Neither one is kind. If only she didn’t love them.

Like her father, Jilly keeps her options open. Lately she’s been hanging out with a group of new mothers, which is how she met Renée. She can spout off the merits of every park in Manhattan. She’s an authority on strollers. No job, but that’s nothing new. Maybe she’ll become a lactation consultant. Her present spouse, Ira, says he doesn’t want her to work. He wants her to ease up and learn to be happy. Good luck, Ira, thinks Ellen. She could kick herself, but there you have it.

If only her girls were not so constantly in her face, couldn’t she be more patient? Lately she’s dreamed about moving a breathable distance from New York—Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore.

Ellen pulls on her favorite jeans, newly comfortable and proudly baggy. Later she’s meeting Pradeep for dinner in the East Village. She’s picturing his long back, his questioning eyes. She’s in no big rush to sleep with Pradeep, though they’ve been seeing each other for months. Apparently this is mutual. Sometimes she wonders, though. He’s younger, late forties. Possibly she is not his only interest?

Pradeep shares Ellen’s love of antique bottles and fifties jazz, enjoys hanging out in flea markets. Jilly and Ardis are unaware of him—a small closet of privacy not yet ransacked by her daughters. Would they like him? Probably not. Both prefer less cerebral types. They’d never get his sense of humor.

The first time Pradeep asked her out Ellen assumed he was kidding. His musical speech pattern tends to make whatever he says seem ironic. That’s part of his appeal, but it can be confusing. All that week he had been helping Ellen customize new software to prepare layouts. It was beyond frustrating, the program seizing up and an hour’s labor vanished. Nice of Pradeep; he had his own deadlines. “So what about dinner tonight, mein Schatz,” he said. They had worked again past nine.

Der Chinese,” answered Ellen, staring at her monitor. Pradeep had to wave his hand in front of it, make clear that he wanted to take her to dinner, not order out again. Even so, she felt like Chinese. They found a new place nearby and ordered without waiting for menus. A comfortable silence blanketed their fatigue as they drained the first pot of tea. When she tasted her eggplant with chilies, Ellen nudged the serving plate in Pradeep’s direction. He took a bite and smiled into the air as if at an invisible face. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Oh yes, I see.”

What a lovely man. Why hadn’t she noticed him?

Revived by the tea, Pradeep had regaled her with tales of his student days in Munich, where he toiled nights as a waiter in a beer garden. The patrons treated him poorly, mistaking him for a Turk, the lowest rung at the time on Munich’s social ladder. But he loved Germany—the mountains and forests, the medieval cities. Even the food, though he, like Ellen, is vegetarian.

When their plates had been cleared, they snapped open the fortune cookies. “Blue is not your color,” read Ellen, peering down at her navy turtleneck. “What happened to Confucius?”

“I don’t think it means that kind of blue,” said Pradeep. He intoned his fortune like a newscaster from the thirties: “A dead duck is still a duck.” Not that funny, really, but something about it triggered a mutual giggling fit they couldn’t tamp, even when people at nearby tables began to frown. They had just about pulled themselves together when Pradeep slouched deep in his seat, garroting himself with his hands. “Still a duck,” he squawked, eyes bulging. They stumbled into the crisp night, laughter erupting every few steps until they had to rest against a building.

Ellen invited him up for coffee. As if they needed more caffeine, but what the heck. How shabby the apartment looked all of a sudden: the walls needing paint, that grubby cotton bolster. It had been months since she viewed her surroundings through another’s eyes. Pradeep perched on the sagging sofa in a manner that seemed European, alert, and slightly formal. Unlike her other (infrequent) male visitors who were more apt to sink back on the cushions with a proprietary ease that irked her in a way she could never explain. “Tomorrow, then,” he said at the door, brushing her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Ellen had closed the door, run her own knuckles over her cheekbone, continuing the sensation. It occurred to her then that what made Pradeep’s accent so unusual was its tinge of German.

A melting pot accent; she likes that. And she likes hearing snippets of his background piecemeal, whenever they happen to come up: a jigsaw puzzle of a man.

Jilly leans on the buzzer while Ellen jogs barefoot to the foyer. “Jesus,” says Ellen, “look at you! Where are Renée and Hannah Rose? It’s six o’clock!”

“The Lord’s name is not to be taketh in vain, Mother.” Jilly wipes her tear-stained face, heading for the sofa.

“Sorry, honey.” Jilly and Ira are newly fundamentalist, struggling with Biblical grammar. She keeps forgetting that. “Anyway, you look like hell—what happened?”

“I’m pregnant, Mother,” says Jilly, as though Ellen might be implicated. She has recently adopted Ardis’ habit of speaking in italics.

A grandchild? A little fin of hope swims by, but Ellen keeps her face neutral. “So, not good?”

 “Well of course it’s not good, Mother. We’ve been married six months! This was supposed to be the fun period.” Jilly buries her face in the bolster, shuddering silently.

“So I guess it was,” says Ellen. She can’t help noting the scratched parquet—it’s bad here in front of the couch. Maybe she ought to get the floors redone.

“I can’t believe this happened. What am I supposed to do?”   

Someone needs to be the voice of reason here, but Ellen’s tired of the role. Let someone else be the damned Voice of Reason for a change. She combs Jilly’s hair with her fingers, smoothing back platinum ringlets that spring forward as she releases them. Artie’s curls, Artie’s green cat eyes. “Okay,” she says, hefting the load because sure as hell no one else will. “Let’s start with what you want, Jilly. Let’s figure this out.”

Ira wants a child. Like it doesn’t matter what I want. I’m just the little hostess for this occasion.”

“Mmmm, I see.” Ellen gets up and steps into the bathroom to a find a washcloth.

“And according to Ira, abortion is out of the question,” Jilly says, mimicking Ira’s resonant bass.

“But you knew Ira wanted kids right away. He told you when you met him. He even told me.”

 Et tu, Mommy?” says Jilly, rolling her eyes.

“How far along are you?” 

“Nine weeks. My gynecologist has reserved a bed at Roosevelt. He thinks there could be complications.” Jilly stiff-arms herself off the couch and scuffs over to the window, swabbing her face with the washcloth. Ellen follows, pauses a step behind. Snowflakes are blowing sideways and swirling away on an updraft. How can that be, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky? “

“Can’t you give this more thought, honey? You’ve had two abortions. Ira’s your second husband and–”

 “Is it necessary to remind me of these obvious facts, Mother? Can you have a little mercy?” Jilly leans hard into Ellen’s shoulder. “I’ll need you to come with me. You’ll have to take me home.”

A wave breaks below Ellen’s breastbone, rises into her throat. It’s snowing harder, the sky suddenly dull. Winter, the time of beginnings.


Pradeep’s sentences trail off as he stirs lazy eights into his lentil soup. Okay, probably a girlfriend, just as she suspected.

“Well,” he starts, but pauses again.

“Well, what?” says Ellen. Why make it easy? She’s pressing her thumbs into her temples, trying to stave off a headache.

“Well, I’m thinking of going back to Germany.” His melancholy eyes lift. No guilt there.

Ellen sighs and releases her thumbs. “So, that’s what the matter is. Why?”

“I’ve been renting my apartment to a cousin, but he’s taken a job in Oslo. Also, my visa will soon expire.” He shrugs in that waifish way he has, making him look much younger, like a boy.

Should she touch the tip of his nose with her finger—is that too dumb? She does it anyway. “I’ll miss you.”

“I will miss you as well,” says Pradeep, looking like he means it. They fall silent, spoon up their soup, considering this. Ellen concentrates on tightening her forehead muscles, a headache-busting technique she learned in biofeedback training. Clench, release. Clench, release. Jilly’s predicament slogs through her brain like a swamp creature.

“I was wondering whether you might like to come with me,” he continues.

Ellen halts her spoon mid-air. “To Germany?”

“Cologne.” That musical inflection, the faint gurgle of laughter.

Clench, release. She’s been to Cologne—a group tour of Europe’s great cathedrals. Begun in 1248, the Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe . . . that ability to remember guidebook details, useless but occasionally amusing. “We barely know each other, Pradeep,” Ellen says. “We aren’t even having sex.” The Voice of Reason.

“We are peaceful. Very comfortable,” says Pradeep, pronouncing all four syllables of comfortable in his Indo-German twang.

“Agreed. But.”

“Would the rest be a problem?”

“The rest? What’s this, some kind of proposal?”

 “Marriage, do you mean?” Pradeep purses his lips. “If you would find it more suitable we could consider . . .”

“I don’t seem to have an aptitude.”

“Me either.”

“I didn’t know you’d been married,” says Ellen.

“Well, once almost.” He shrugs again, leans forward. “But what’s that you were just saying, Ellen, that you and I should be having sex?”

“No. I was just pointing out that we aren’t.”

“Well, possibly we should,” he says, brightening, as if this hadn’t occurred to him.

Oh for god sake, talk about timing. “I guess my biggest concern would be getting a job over there,” Ellen says, more to herself than Pradeep.

“Do not be concerned. I have excellent connections.”

Ellen cups her eye. An anvil has sunk itself into her brow, and a zigzag border is forming around her vision. “You know what? I need some time to absorb all this.”

“Of course. Plenty of time. What’s going on with your eye?”


“Oh, too bad. We’d better get you right home.” Pradeep cranes his neck, looking for the waiter.

“When are you thinking of leaving?”

“Next month. I’ve purchased my ticket.”


[img_assist|nid=5882|title=Phone by Julie Laquer © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=175|height=175]“Cologne?” shrieks Ardis through the phone. “Honestly, Mother, you never cease to amaze. What can you be thinking?”

“You can visit me. Think bratwurst, think schnitzel.”


“Seriously, why not?”

“Well, for starters, who is this guy? What do you know about him?”

Ellen switches the phone to her other ear. “I know he’s a German citizen.”

“Great, Mother. A German. They’re barbarians.”

“Listen to you, Ardis. Your Grandpa Koester was German.”

“I’m talking Nazi resurgence, Mother. And if that doesn’t freak you out, how about terrorism. Don’t you read the newspaper? There are big problems over there.”

 Ellen sighs. “There are big problems everywhere, Ardis. And Pradeep is a very peaceful man.”

“You’re going to Germany with an Indian?”

“Name does sound Indian, doesn’t it?”

“I’m coming over.”


Ardis marches in, armed with a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, a sack of roasted cashews, and beef jerky wrapped in cellophane. “Offerings!” cries Ellen gaily. She pecks Ardis’ cheek and goes off to search for the corkscrew, while Ardis prowls the living room, slouches into the Windsor chair. She runs her hands up and down the wooden arms, caressing the carved paws.

“Ardis, don’t look so grim,” says Ellen, returning with the opened wine and two stemmed glasses. “This is not the end of Western civilization. Let’s have some of your nice wine.”

“You’re an adult, Mother. I’m not here to insult your intelligence.”


“So don’t insult mine. This is unreasonable.”

 “Unexpected, perhaps. Why unreasonable?”

“What are you going to do for money?”

“Got it covered.”

Ardis straightens, remembering her mission. “You understand that his mother will own you. You will wash this woman’s feet.”

Ellen nibbles her bottom lip to suppress a smile. “You’ll be relieved to know that Pradeep’s mother has been dead for fifteen years, Ardis, so I doubt there will be any foot washing to speak of. Besides, we have no plans to marry. We haven’t even decided whether to live together.”

Ardis frowns, sniffs her cabernet. “You’re in love with this Pra-deep?”

“You might call it that.”

It occurs to Ellen that this is the first time in years she’s glimpsed uncertainty in her eldest. It’s refreshing. Touching, actually. She’s about to reach for Ardis’ hand, say something conciliatory, when the buzzer signals Jilly’s arrival.

Without taking off her faux-leopard coat, Jilly flings herself on the sofa. “Tell me this isn’t permanent!”

 “Don’t know, Jill. Could be permanent. Why not?” says Ellen, sitting down beside her. She strokes Jilly’s coat, so silky, so close to real.

“Because it’s too friggin’ far!”

 “Didn’t God make planes? Didn’t He create phones?” Ellen grabs a handful of cashews. She hasn’t felt this good in months.

“But you know Ira and I are separating. I was thinking of moving back home for a while.” The crestfallen face, the desperate eyes. Ah, Artie.

Silence dangles like an apple, waiting to be plucked. “Well,” says Ellen, reaching for it. “I don’t see why you couldn’t.” She leans forward for a moment, hands on her thighs, then rockets up, propelled by an unfamiliar energy. “They can’t prove you ever left, can they? You could move right in, Jilly. No sublet!”

Jilly shoots Ardis a look.

[img_assist|nid=5883|title=Wissahickon Winter by Marita McVeigh © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=176|height=144]“You can get a job, move right in,” repeats Ellen, waving an imaginary baton. “It’s still rent-stabilized.”

“Alone?” says Jilly, drawing out the “o.” Artie getting ready to work the angles, Ellen hears it immediately.

“Or, find yourself a roommate, get married again, whatever.”

“Get married again?”

Both girls are staring now. “She’s going,” says Ardis, her mouth full of beef jerky.

 “And don’t forget there’s Ardis a mere subway stop away.” Ellen heads for the kitchen to find another wineglass, calling over her shoulder as if across a great body of water. “Right here at home, Jilly, all the comforts. And Ardis ready to advise on almost anything.”

“What’s that about?” says Ardis, gripping the paws of her chair.

 “How should I know?” says Jilly, but already she’s redrawing her bead. “You’re the big expert.

Ellen roots among the shelves above the stove. There’s got to be another wine glass in here. Oktoberfest, wouldn’t that be something! she’s thinking, or did she say it aloud? Bayreuth! Kirshekuchen like mom used to buy at that little bakery in St. Louis. Her disembodied voice wafts into the living room.

“What did she say?” says Ardis. “Sounded like and dim sum!”

“We can’t hear you mother,” calls Jilly. “What?”

Head and shoulders in the cabinet, Ellen hums the final bars of “Lili Marlene,” all she can remember from when her daddy used to sing it after the war. A newly-minted citizen, he’d fought with the Americans, the only guy in his battalion who knew the words in both languages.

“Shush, Jilly! Shut up!” says Ardis, learning forward, cupping her ear. But there’s nothing now except the urgent ring of glasses being jostled—a bit roughly, perhaps, but not to the point of breaking. 


Juditha Dowd lives north of Trenton on the Jersey side of the  Delaware. Her work has been published in The Florida Review, Perigee and AARP Magazine and been featured on Poetry Daily. She performs in  the tri-state area with the ensemble Cool Women and is currently working on a second novel.Juditha Dowd lives north of Trenton on the Jersey side of the  Delaware. Her work has been published in The Florida Review, Perigee and AARP Magazine and been featured on Poetry Daily. She performs in  the tri-state area with the ensemble Cool Women and is currently working on a second novel.

Leave a Reply