Short Story by Brett Marie: The Boy, My Son.
The Friday before she left for Prague, Maggie called her mom to give her the hotel’s phone number. She probably wouldn’t call her even in an emergency, but Maggie knew Mom would feel better just having it. In the small talk that followed, Maggie mentioned that she was late.
“Late?” Mom said to fill in the gap between hearing and comprehension. She followed up, “Of course you’ll get the test this time, right?”
Maggie knew the implication that Mom wanted to leave unsaid, but she played dumb.
“I couldn’t read the drugstore test last time. I’ll just make an appointment with the obstetrician if it hasn’t come when we get back.”
“Honey, you know what I mean.” Maggie could almost feel Mom’s hand, palm on her cheek, fingertips touching the base of her skull, the way she used to hold her in place to keep her attention. It was as if Mom were reaching across the phone lines, all the way from Boston, to make her point now. “You’re forty years old. It happened to you with Ralphie. If anything it’s even more likely to happen now.”
Maggie thought of Ralph, sitting in class at that moment, a six-year-old boy being cheered by his one-on-one assistant Serena for drawing a circle and counting to twenty. The wave of mixed emotions that the thought unleashed would have lifted the rash, accusing words up from her heart and out her lips were it not for her lawyerly self-control. That poise, the instinct for what to say, how to serve her words, and when to remain silent; so effective in drawing stubborn truths from an uncooperative witness, that same poise now served to dam up her mouth so that Mom might say what she was implying, and hear it for herself.
The vacuum created by Maggie’s silence sucked the next sentence from Mom’s end of the line. “I mean, you wouldn’t have another Down baby.” She halted, perhaps grasping what she was leaving unsaid. She retreated just one step, adding meekly, “Would you?”
Still coy, Maggie replied, “Well, Mom, I don’t see what I could do about something like that.” Maggie wanted her to say it.
“Look, Margaret, sweetie. I’ve seen how you deal with Ralphie, and baby, you’re a saint!” Those words, deal with, made tiny pinpricks in Maggie’s eardrums. “You don’t think you should go through that again, do you?”
“Oh, you mean I should have an abortion?”
“It’s just that, you know...”
Maggie’s red-headed temper undercut her professional restraint. “Wow, you mean the Pope says we can do that now? So I won’t have to answer to the Man Upstairs for giving to Planned Parenthood anymore? Well, Hallelujah, Mom!” She couldn’t believe she was taking this stance in an argument. Against her mother.
“So is Ralphie excited about the trip?”
“Yeah, Ralph’s fine,” she said. Mom could change the subject on a dime from life-or-death discussions when they made her uncomfortable. For all Maggie’s prowess at debating, she could never help but follow suit. “We’ve been prepping him. Nate tells him we’ll be taking an airplane to Prague, and he says ‘Plane! Pwog!’ ”
They lingered on Ralph for awhile, the news of his modest progresses a salve for their goodwill. Still, she could feel the seed her mother had planted in her mind. She felt it take root even as they exchanged I-love-yous, felt its tiny shoots poke out as the receiver hit the cradle. And she knew it would grow within her, and soon wrap itself around her every thought.
She didn’t mention her mother’s comments to Nate, although surely he would have revelled in Mom’s hypocrisy. No, Nate would have a good laugh, but at the underlying issue he would scoff. If she pressed him, she’d get about a minute of cogitation, and then some bromide that would line up his ethics neatly in his own mind, but leave her underwhelmed. That was just Nate’s way, she knew, but she couldn’t stand to test his predictable nature, not when the questions at hand cut them so close to their hearts. Besides, of course, she hadn’t yet told Nate that she was late.
On Sunday, she stuffed Ralph’s red T-shirt into their suitcase and was hit by the recollection of his school’s Christmas pageant. The picture of her boy, in that red top and those green pants, aping his assistant’s movements while the other boys and girls danced their simple “Santa’s Helpers” routine from memory, filled the frame of her thought. She remembered turning to her mother beside her as Ralphie’s classmates jumped in the air. She could still see Mom chase away a tear with her index finger when her little guy only kicked out awkwardly and made a straight-legged stomp with all his might, the word “Jump!” forming at his lips. What had been a tender memory hardened into an indictment of the old woman.
By Sunday evening, she was explaining away her brooding distraction, first to Nate’s quizzical looks and then to his outright questions, as pre-flight jitters. She shrugged off her inattentiveness at six o’clock Sunday evening when Nate reminded her that she had yet to call Gregor to arrange to meet up. “What will you do now?” he asked. “It’s midnight over there.”
“I’ll call tomorrow before we leave,” she replied, then reconsidered. “Hell, I’ll call him now. If he’s the same Gregor, he’s got a couple hours left in him.”
Sure enough, Gregor picked up on the first ring. “No, Magda, is not late for, for me. I am glad you called.” His voice showed what his recent emails could not: the dusting of fifteen years and no doubt a hundred thousand cigarettes. His English had also deteriorated since he’d left New York, when the Curtain came down and homesickness finally claimed him from her.
“We’re flying out tomorrow evening,” she told him. “We get into Prague in early morning on Tuesday.” She could hear a soft, rhythmic knocking in the background on Gregor’s end as she spoke.
“Fine, Magda, but I ken’t visit for long. I telled you about Monika.” The knocking quickened, intensified. “She has hospital appointment Tuesday afternoon. They might, ah, admit her, and then we are busy. You understand.” Her mind flashed back to Ralph, two years old, unconscious, hooked up to machines and looking beaten up after a life-saving heart operation. Yes, she understood.
They were to stay at a hotel in Wenceslas Square. Gregor lived in Mala Strana, on the other side of the river. “I tell you what, Magda. We meet on the Bridge, half the way for both of us.” The knocking gave way to a peculiar grunting, and finally Gregor acknowledged the noises. “You hear her, my dear? I telled her you are coming, telled her all about you.” The grunting turned to a whine, like a toddler begging for a cookie. “She is excited to meet you. And your boy, a new friend for her.”
“She’s up awfully late,” Maggie kidded.
He laughed, a light but weary chuckle. “She slept before. She will nap soon, but she likes night-time.”
“Like her father.”
He seemed to wait for a thought to gather, but came up empty. “Like her father, yes.”
She hung up the phone five minutes later and found Nate in the living room with Ralph. Father and son had fashioned a game: Nate threw a beanbag to Ralph; Ralph caught it, or more often let it hit his chest and then bent over and picked it up from where it dropped at his feet; Nate begged and cajoled him for it (“Throw it to Daddy! Come on, to Daddy!”); Ralph tossed it at a random corner of the room; Nate threw up his hands and retrieved it, returning to his station with that look of patient resignation he wore so well, curled up at either corner of his mouth and raised at the eyebrows for a child’s consumption.
The two moved to Ralph’s exercise ball. Nate urged Ralph, with cheers, with silly songs sung in falsetto, into what little the boy would tolerate of his physio routine. She relayed the details of their planned meeting over his shoulder as she watched the power play: tall, strapping Goliath on his knees, scratching his head and stroking his beard in futile strategic contemplation, facing the minuscule creature, a quarter of his size, who through simple stubborn will wriggled out of every exercise he was steered into. Nate cried uncle in two minutes. “What does the girl have?”
“Something-something dwarfism. He wrote the name in an email when we got back in touch.” She described the background clamour of the phone call.
He stroked his beard some more, then asked, “And how old is she?”
“About twelve, I think.”
He called compassion to his features. “That’s rough.” He pulled Ralph in close, hugging him in his lap as if for balance while he furrowed his brow at the unpleasant subject. When the boy squirmed away and set himself down to play his toy xylophone, Nate did what he could be depended on to do: Climbing to his feet, he walked over to Maggie and hugged her . “You see? No matter how bad you think you’ve got it in this world, someone’s always got it worse.” A clatter of metallic notes from Ralph’s toy served as a coda; with that, for Nate at least, the topic was tidily shelved.
She brooded on, sleepwalking through the remainder of their packing. She kept losing her place as she sang Ralph his lullabies at bed-time, so that he became distressed and took an extra twenty minutes to go to sleep. At nine she boiled water for chamomile tea. At nine-thirty she came upon the cup on the kitchen counter, the bag still dry at the bottom, and had to put the kettle on again. In bed an hour later, staring at the splashes of street light that arrayed themselves on the ceiling above the curtains, she brooded some more, swinging her reproach in all directions: at her mother, at Nate, at herself. The morning alarm scolded her for letting sleep break her sulk.
Their morning was the usual pre-vacation whirlwind of last-minute preparations. In the cab from Park Slope to JFK, Maggie and Nate volleyed a stream-of-consciousness checklist back and forth at each other. Seated bolt upright in her lap, Ralph stabbed his finger onto the window to count passing cars. He hit one through twenty in perfect sequence, lost a number or two between twenty and twenty-six, and then, having hit the ceiling of his ability, he started merrily back at one.
The airport was the usual nightmare, a maze of counters, barricades, metal detectors and impulse-buy duty-free shops that made her wonder, as it always did, why they ever bothered with the stress of going on vacation. The lady who took their boarding pass at the gate smiled down at Ralph in his stroller. Maggie couldn’t help feeling that the expression looked foreign, antiquated. A smile, she thought, wheeling Ralph down the ramp to the plane. How quaint.
Nate was asleep before they cleared the low clouds, and she hated him for it. She tried to put her mind off her anxieties by showing Ralph the flight map on the screen in front of his seat. “See? There we are.” She pointed at the airplane icon in the middle of the screen. “And there’s New York, where we came from.”
“That’s right.” The plane icon inched ahead, and the map’s scale changed. On the far right a new city marker appeared, showing Boston.
“Ooh, and look Ralphie! There’s where Grandma lives.”
“Yes.” Against her efforts, the fluid sweetness was sucked from her voice. “Grandma. In Boston.”
She drew all her hardness into her head, right behind her eyes. She looked out the window, found the point on the horizon that she supposed must be Boston, and tried to shoot her bitterness out of her pupils, through the window, at her mother. She held her focus on that point, obscured by a flock of cumulus clouds, until it disappeared under the tip of the plane’s wing. Ralph occupied himself pressing buttons on the armrest console.
An hour passed. Every few minutes, as she dangled toys in front of Ralph, sang him songs, and flipped channels on his screen to find anything that would hold his interest, she found herself shrugging Nate’s lolling head off her shoulder. Before the plane had lost sight of the Canadian coast, she started feeling cramps. The discomfort that she would normally dread brought a wave of relief. Five hours later, however, frazzled from the sustained stress of keeping her son entertained before finally nudging Nate awake to take over, she went to the bathroom and still saw no blood.
She didn’t feel her face pull into a grimace, didn’t catch the high-pitched whine of her breath, until the rivulet of water coursed past her upper lip, seeped into her mouth and sent a bitter salty taste exploding onto her tongue. With that, unburdened of any illusions of self-control, she sobbed in reflexive jags while she washed her hands. After a long minute, the flood of emotion finally receded, and all that remained on the surface was an overwhelming thirst. Back at their seats, finding Nate reading the duty-free catalog to Ralph, she flagged down a flight attendant to get a cup of water. She thanked herself for having packed her eyeliner so inaccessibly away the night before that she’d had to do without it today.
Midway into their descent over the Czech countryside, a strong crosswind swatted at the plane. A sudden sideways jolt and a dip in the plane’s altitude drew a few gasps. Gasps turned into amplified whimpers as the aircraft began bucking and bumping like it was tumbling down a mountainside. A business-clad gentleman across the aisle from Ralph let out a groan, grabbed at his silver hair with one hand, and with the other reached for his air-sickness bag. Beside Maggie, Nate, normally an easy flyer, clutched at his armrest until his knuckles blanched.
But at the moment Maggie’s own heart began pounding into her throat, a new sound started building, a low coo that slowly crescendoed in her left ear. There in his aisle seat, arms and legs sticking straight out and shaking excitedly with each assault on the plane’s hull, was her boy. As she turned to see his face, the plane took another dip. This time a dozen wails and one outright scream played legato over the air pocket’s percussion. The terrible symphony played havoc with her insides as much as the unending shaking, until Ralph’s sustained coo built itself into a soaring alto squeal that reduced the tormented wails to a mere accompaniment:
Though the turbulence continued, an ashen Nate burst into a relieved, laughing sigh. Ralph’s ongoing cheer sent a ripple of surprised laughter across several rows. As the shuddering jolts gave way to smaller bumps and finally to minor hiccups, heads began to turn toward him. Taut faces relaxed into smiles at the little boy who still braced for a further thrill ride, his eyes squinting crescents and his lips pulled back in his most maniacally happy, crooked-toothed grin.
The plane landed to exhausted applause. As he staggered to his feet, the fellow in the business clothes reached across the aisle to touch Ralph’s shoulder. “My boy,” he said in a prim English accent, “you are an inspiration!” Nate gave a gracious thank-you on Ralph’s behalf, but the comment irked Maggie for reasons she didn’t have the energy to explore.
In the taxi to the hotel, Nate took in the Czech landscape, commenting on the majesty of medieval spires and Art Nouveau frescoes. Maggie watched Ralph in her lap while he held out his arms, as he had for their descent, and cooed each time the car came down a cobblestone street. She pointed to a passing street trolley, trying to snare his interest, but the boy was in one of his unreachable moods: perfectly content to live inside his own mind, his spirit satiated by the feeling of motion.
Nate pulled himself momentarily from atop the spires and smiled at their son’s antics. “You could still be in Brooklyn for all you care, huh, buddy?” He reached a loving hand to stroke Ralph’s cheek, and was batted away. He laughed. “Could’ve just driven round and round the block –would’ve saved us a trip.”
The city laid itself out in spectacular fashion for them as they crossed a bridge into the old town. The morning sun dappled the water with its reflection, standing sentry against a mass of clouds retreating over the hills behind them. The sunlight fell across Ralph’s lap and pulled him out of himself. He turned to the window and tapped it. “Sun!” he declared, then changed his mind when he had to squint out the window in its glare. “No sun!” He started a low moan until the row of buildings at the approaching riverbank rose to the foreground and blocked it out.
Nate leaned over and mussed the boy’s hair. “He hasn’t slept.” He ran his index finger up Maggie’s arm, making it pirouette at her shoulder. “He ought to conk out soon. It’s, what? Nine o’clock here?”
“Three a.m. to him.” She patted his hair back into place. “But all he did was sit on the plane. How much rest could he need from that?”
“Pwog!” The boy leaned over and plastered his face against the window.
Maggie kissed the top of his head. “Yes, Prague. Good boy.”
She woke at noon to his uneven footfalls and the click of the bathroom door latch. Off the bed before she could remind herself where she was, she stumbled over her suitcase while in the forefront of her mind an image played of Ralphie with his hand in the toilet. She eased the door open to find the boy standing facing her, urine-filled diaper a bulge in the pants that lay around his ankles. When she placed him on the bowl he peed some more and cheered himself in the third person. She did a labored victory dance, then set about changing him into ‘big-boy undies’ (“Tell Mommy when you need the potty.”), and led him to the bed where Nate still slept.
Nate stirred, lifted an eyelid, and held out both hands to help his son onto the bed with him. It was a familiar routine for the boy; he heaved himself up and nestled himself in his daddy’s arms. Nate pulled the bed-sheet over the two of them. “Two peas in a pod,” he said, as he always did.
Thus unencumbered, as was her routine on weekends and holidays, she showered. Her cramps had subsided, and she wasn’t surprised that there still wasn’t blood. Running the soap over her frankly skeletal body, she began to imagine she felt disturbing curves. Yes, a little flesh on her hips, some more weight behind and in the thigh, a distinct swell to her once-flat chest. And – could it be? – the tiniest bulge in her lower abdomen. It could be she was gaining weight. Of course she was probably just retaining water at the end of her cycle. But before her brain had fully processed these thoughts, her finger was probing at her navel. About there, perhaps a bit lower, that’s where she imagined they’d put in the needle. How many weeks before they would do it?
She felt a sting in her eyes, and found herself swallowing hard at a bilious taste in the back of her throat. She heard herself call out to Nate, and eagerly seized on a new thought when he groggily answered over the hiss of the shower head. “Don’t let Ralphie go back to sleep, or he’ll miss breakfast!”
Ralph was back in a diaper when they emerged from the hotel – they couldn’t deal with the hassle of an accident here. They walked up and down the slope of Wenceslas Square, taking turns wheeling the stroller they had vowed not to bring on this trip. Ralph grinned out of it as though he knew his stubborn nature had won the battle against their ambitions. At the top, in the shadow of the National Museum, they took him out and walked him to the fountain beneath the great black Tschechia trio of statues. Nate placed the stroller out of camera-shot to take pictures of mother and son. Sitting on the fountain’s marble brim, Maggie leaned back, dipped her fingers in the water and tapped them against her collarbone. Nate scooped Ralph up before the boy could plunge head-first into the pool, and strapped him back into the stroller. Then he followed Maggie’s example, flicking a few drops at Ralph. “Gettin’ hot.”
With an eye on their tiny guidebook map, they walked back downhill and entered the maze of streets below the Square. Twice they stopped for directions to the Charles Bridge when they found the street they turned onto omitted from the map. Three times they wheeled Ralph into marionette shops, where salespeople dazzled him with expertly puppeteered dances by small Pinocchio figurines. They bought ice creams and marveled at the Astronomical Clock, with its magnificent statuettes and intricately overlapped faces to mark the hours of the day and the signs of the Zodiac. Ralph let out long moans to catch the bumps with his voice as they rolled him over the long stretches of cobblestones. But with each step, the heat became more sweltering, and even he began to flag.
“Ice cream,” he mumbled as they passed another sweet shop.
“Oh, yes.” Maggie braced herself for the coming battle. “You just had one of those. It was yummy!”
He let out a groan, twisted around in his seat, and thrust a stubby finger at the shop receding behind them. “Ice cream!” he growled, then tried a more eloquent argument. “I ... want ... ice cream,” he said with a forced calm, and added for good measure, “Please.” He even made the sign, a circular motion over his chest, as he said it.
Maggie and Nate exchanged bemused glances, then, on the same impulse, made the sweeping “all-done” sign together. The “No!” that leapt from their mouths in unison crossed a line in Ralph’s heart between firmness and cruelty, and sent him into a paroxysm of grief.
“Ice creeeeeem!” he wailed. “Please!” he moaned. His face turned scarlet and his eyes became watery slits. Among the milling throng that flowed through the street around them, heads began to turn. For a minute Ralph’s wails drew eyes to them all, and those eyes drew blood to Maggie’s cheeks. Finally, fifty yards later, when Maggie had made up her mind to turn back, to race to the sweet shop and shove a cone down his throat, Ralph took a deep breath and sobbed a compromise: “Cup!”
Maggie dove into their bag of outing supplies, pulled out his sippy-cup of mineral water, and thrust it into the boy’s outstretched hands. With relief she saw him gulp it down, and she felt the eyes withdraw from her space. She grabbed her own water bottle and took a sloppy swig. A trickle of water ran past her chin and down her neck. Its tepid wetness gave her a shiver and reawakened her skin to the air around them. The heat was stifling.
The river of bodies around them had eddied in all directions down narrow tributary streets along their route. Here it began to flow into one current. Nate put the guidebook in his pocket; the path was clear to them now. Sure enough, as they turned the next corner, the great trapezoidal turreted tower that loomed in the background of so many postcards now lorded over the scene. Ralph rubbed the last trace of his tantrum from his eye with one fist, and gestured at the great gateway with his half-empty cup. “Bwidge!”
And so it was. The line of tourists marched leisurely toward it, bisected itself briefly to allow a trolley to pass at a crosswalk, then passed through the base of the tower and onto the Charles Bridge. The relief Maggie sought, though, from the wait, from the crush of people, never came. The queuing continued, and in fact got worse, for now it had lost its forward discipline. In front of them a group of college kids halted abruptly at a souvenir stand, and the wheel of Ralph’s stroller rolled into a girl’s sandaled heel. Just a few paces further, Maggie had to steer clear of a chubby oaf who stood in the middle of their path, oblivious to all but his wife in the viewfinder of his camera. Coming from the other side was a line of old people doddering behind a slender twenty-something who held up a bright red umbrella, closed, as a beacon to her flock. She wagged her finger at one of the dozens of green statues that lined the wall of the bridge and began a terse monologue in phlegmy German; Maggie felt a surprising relief that it wasn’t in Yankee English.
From the cloudless, now buildingless sky, a fierce sun poured its heat. Maggie rubbed her hands along skin that felt branded, and cursed under her breath. She looked over at Nate, one step ahead of her, painting his arms with sunblock. With white patches still below his elbows, he bent over Ralph and started applying the lotion to the boy’s face. With that the fragile crust of calm the cup of water had bought them crumbled away.
“No-o-o-o-o! All done!” Ralph squirmed in his seat.
“Take it easy,” his father soothed.
Maggie leaned over and took the tube for herself. “It’s okay, baby.” She winced inwardly at herself for calling him ‘baby’ in public. “This keeps away boo-boos from the sun.”
Over Ralph’s anguished squeals, Nate pointed at the offending sun. “Sun is hot.”
“No sun! No sun hot!” He started to sob. Maggie felt a light nudge in her back as someone behind tried to skirt around her. The German tourists had taken up the whole space to their left, and now they were blocking the people behind them. Her sweat began to pour.
Without signaling to Nate, she pulled the stroller back, turned it to the right and wheeled it to the wall of the bridge. Nate stumbled back in surprise, but regained his balance and brought himself to stand next to the stroller.
Nate watched the minor throng that they had held at bay disperse while Maggie rubbed in her lotion and tried to calm Ralph down. A large copper figure of Christ loomed over them, hanging from a cross adorned with Hebrew writing. Showing his characteristic ability to ride out his son’s fits by simply closing his ears to them, Nate took a long look at the statue while the boy screamed. In a voice that seemed to be catching its breath, he cracked, “Boy.” Gesturing at the statue with one hand while fanning his face with the other, he said, “I hope he’s wearing sunblock.” Maggie didn’t laugh. She couldn’t bring it out of herself. She didn’t even smile.
Ralph kept up his noise, his contorted face glowing red through the translucent white smears of lotion. Maggie squatted in front of the stroller to try to pacify him. For a brief moment he simmered down, long enough to rub at his eyes. But his fingers brought the lotion to mix with his tears, and when the awful concoction seeped past his lashes and stung his eyes, it drew new tears, and with them, new noise.
“Eyes! Eyes hurt!”
Nate came to the rescue with a napkin he had crammed in his shorts pocket from the ice cream parlor. While he dabbed at Ralph’s eyes, Maggie grabbed her water bottle and stood. Unscrewing the top, she backed into the wall of the bridge. Below them ran the Vltava River, vaguely brown from this angle but wide and cool and sparsely dotted with small boats. She sipped her water and breathed deeply, trying to bring her bloodstream in line with the river’s lazy flow. But beside her on the bridge, the current of the tourist parade was too powerful to escape.
The current of this procession was slow, dammed up at irregular intervals where statues, souvenir stands and portrait sketchers caught the whimsy of passersby. Some sought a point beyond the next stall, read the traffic before them and steered doggedly through it. Others meandered every few feet, casting their gazes like yo-yos, from a copper saint here, to the guidebooks open in their hands, to the next statue over there, back to their books. And always, when these people came to the figure of Christ behind her, Maggie watched the same process play out: the scholarly contemplation of the crucifixion, accompanied in some by a glance at the guidebook blurb; the lowering of the eyes to see the extra exhibit – Down Boy Whining at the Feet of the Lord – then the flash of deer-in-headlights gaping as the onlooker figured out whether to look away or put a politically correct face on their staring.
Maggie could feel her cheeks burning with the flare of her temper. Her jaw clenched in a pulsing rhythm with Ralph’s groans. She massaged the back of her neck; her hand fell from it slippery with sweat and settled on the top of her belt. Her wayward index finger stretched out across her waist, found her navel, poked at it, stroked it. She breathed a sharp curse; whether at herself or at an old man then creasing his brow at her boy, she didn’t know.
Ralph’s face began to slacken, and the red of his distress slowly drained. Nate stood and mussed the boy’s blond hair. The three of them turned as one when a slow burst of organ notes bubbled out of a speaker ahead of them. The remainder of Ralph’s grimace dropped from his face. “Music!” came his one-word command. His parents understood and obeyed.
Nate brought the stroller to a stop out of the way of the crowd a few feet to the side of the electric keyboard, just as the trio began singing. Side by side, one sitting and caressing the keys before her, her companions standing at her flanks, the group of women moaned a solemn hymn in falsetto harmony. All three wore long black dresses in defiance of the heat. Each had her hair cut at shoulder length, tied back in a crimson ribbon. And each could well have been blind. Certainly this was true for the organist, whose eyelids, half open, bulged with bright pink flesh that covered her pupils. Her companions stared blankly and unblinking ahead. On their placid faces, only their lips moved, blooming in song, wilting into silence, alternating in a counterpoint that braided together in ethereal harmony.
Ralph’s tears dried tracks into the sunblocked white of his cheeks. He leaned forward in his stroller, his open mouth forming ghostly syllables in a studied imitation of the Latin prayer being offered. The line of bodies had thinned, and opened up a space of a few feet for viewing the trio. Now and again a body would stray from the throng to drop a coin into the wicker basket set in front of the keyboard; but only Maggie, Nate and Ralph had stopped to really take the music in. At the end of the first hymn, over a smattering of distracted clapping, Ralph cheered, “Yay, music!” The singers made no motion to acknowledge the applause. After a second of silence, the small speaker on a tripod behind them heaved forth a new organ passage, and the women wove their voices into a new hymn.
Ralph’s fingers tugged at the buckle of his waist strap. When his parents didn’t take his hint, he pointed at the ground in front of him. “Dancing!”
Nate leaned in and unbuckled the boy. “There ya go, kiddo.” He motioned with his hands at the brick dance-floor by the keyboard. “Shake a tail feather!”
And he did, sliding out of his throne and taking up a spot at the center of the empty space. With visible effort he tried to find a beat in the slow, gentle pulse of the keyboard. He thrust out his lips in time with slaps at the sky. “Ooh! Ooh!” He bent, stamped his feet, turned away. Maggie’s cheeks burned when she saw the waistline of his diaper peeking out the back of his pants.
Maggie struggled to hold her smile of motherly pride, to stand her full height, to enjoy in crowded public the makings of a pleasant memory. But the crowd milled on beside the boy, and the current of its movement pulled at her eyes. Those faces, glancing sidelong at her boy’s small spectacle, smiling all, betrayed to her across them a familiar tautness. It was that subtle tension of pity, and as much as the movement of bodies tugged her focus, the gravity of that inescapable sorrow pulled down her features and weighed on her heart.
The hymn ended. Ralph clapped heartily. “Yay, music! Yay, ladies!” Maggie thought that Nate would end his awkward performance and coax him back to the stroller. The boy had had his fun, after all. But Nate stood still at her side, beaming. Ralph showed no sign of the cranky fatigue that had consumed him two minutes before. As the trio embarked on a new song, he launched into further calisthenics, oblivious to his passing audience. Maggie felt the urge to go to him, to take him and lead him to his stroller, to strap him in and turn him away from the glare of strangers. Her legs were stayed by a guilty conscience so strong it made her wince.
“Dancing!” he cried. Out went his splayed hands in an arc over his head. Side to side he swayed, and brought his hands into fists in front of him. “Tap! Tap!” He pounded one atop the other. With that Maggie recognized the ‘Santa’s Helpers’ dance, the only dance he knew. Alighting on it with a new sense of purpose, he lumbered through its movements, choosing his own lively pace against the hymn’s sluggish procession.
Nate laughed as he took a picture. “He dances to a different drummer.” With her every ounce of strength she chuckled meekly along. But her façade was almost torn down, by the moist choke that cut her last “ha!” short, by the burst of warmth behind her nose. The tears were building, she knew, and she could tell when they would fall.
“We’d better get going,” she said to Nate, her eyes still fixed on Ralph.
“Going?” Of course he sounded confused. “But your ex –we’re waiting – ”
“That’s right. It’s late. We need to look...” Her throat tightened some more.
“Saw! Saw!” Ralph’s fists pumped in and out. In a moment he would do it, and it would bring the flood of shameful tears.
“If he’s on this bridge he’ll find us here,” her husband was saying. “He knows about Ralph. You can’t miss us.”
And so she stayed put, and dreaded it: the last pitiful step to this clumsy choreography. Jesus, six months since they did this at school, all the other kids could do it back then, and her poor guy still couldn’t jump. Hell, even other kids with Down’s could get both feet off the ground by now, low muscle tone or not.
Nate, as usual, had no clue. “Six months later and he still remembers all the steps. Amazing.” Just a couple more steps now. A few more bars. Out of the blue she thought of her mother. She winced again. Nate went on. “He didn’t even need Serena to show him!”
“Hel-ping! Hel-ping!” Here it came. He’d spin around any second, bend down, stand back up, and then he would kick out and stomp straight-legged with his hands reaching high in the air. And she would turn and bury her face in Nate’s chest. She would cry then, cry for all the gawkers, give them a real show: Retarded Kid’s Pathetic Mom. She hated herself for it, but still, there it was, her heart a locomotive, barreling toward a gap in the track. She held her breath as Ralph went into his spin.
“A little Nureyev you have there.” Gregor’s hand touched the small of her back as he spoke, its familiarity dispelling any split-second suspicion that the words might have come from a stranger. His eye was still on Ralph when she turned. To see his sharp, striking profile from so close at first glance made her start. With that short gasp she found herself swimming in the ether of his cologne. Her eyes fluttered, and each blink triggered a millisecond flash of memory: Gregor her pupil during her days as an English Language tutor, leaning close beside her at the library table, the new word ‘date’ popping off his tongue as he tested his vocabulary on her; Gregor the art lover, pulling her in to give her the right perspective and imparting like a secret fantasy his awe at a masterpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gregor the music fanatic, imaginary drumstick in his hand, tapping air in time to a certain Gene Krupa beat he found particularly exquisite, the motion stirring up his intoxicating scent. His name rushed from her throat in a sigh, and she embraced him. Ralph’s shout, “Jump!” rang faintly in her ear as she kissed her former lover’s cheek.
Words of grateful reunion rose in a flurry between them. “You look good!” she told him just before the deep creases in his face made themselves apparent. Really, he was haggard, wrinkled beyond his forty-two years, gaunt, with sunken eyes and leathery cheeks. At her comment, he raised his eyebrows in amused surprise. The lines of his forehead etched themselves deeper, and folded into a rippled arrow that pointed at his receding hairline.
“I look terrible,” he replied with a laugh. “Too many late nights, you would say.” Two quick jolts sent a tremor up his left arm. Only then did Maggie notice his hand on the handlebar of a stroller. “Monika,” Gregor called down to the brown ponytail that faced them, “Pojď pozdravit svého nového kamaráda. Say hello to Magda.”
The ponytail swayed gently as Monika’s head tilted back to look at them. Her eyes, shaded by her thick bangs, were further drawn to slits by her heavy lids, and peered at them down a long, sharp nose that drew her face to a point. Her head lolled sleepily as she studied Maggie. Gregor said something to her in Czech and she bared her upper teeth, a widely-spaced row of round white nubs, in an approximation of a smile.
Maggie held her focus on the girl’s half-hidden brown eyes. “Hello, Monika.” She felt a studied evenness and careful enunciation tarnishing her greeting. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Monika sucked her teeth back in, her lower lip all but disappearing with them. Her head swayed, planting her cheek into the green canvas back of her stroller. In lazy slow motion, she brought her hands to her chin. Wrists bent at right angles, fingers curved as if grabbing at air, she let them hover there, a jagged unwitting mimicry of a boxer at the ready. And, like a wind-up toy wound down, her motion ceased. She lay still, knees tucked awkwardly up and to one side, body curled into a crescent in a seat that cradled her more like a hammock than a stroller.
Gregor looked past Maggie’s shoulder. “Your family.”
Time and place caught back up with her. “Oh, of course.” Of course. Nate hung politely back by the wall with Ralph. Her little Nureyev, having climbed back into his stroller, sat before his father and stared suspiciously at his mother’s company. She tapped Gregor’s elbow in a gesture to follow her, and stepped into formation with her husband.
Greetings and introductions bounced back and forth. “Hi, Gweego!” and “Hi Monka!” Ralph recited on cue when introduced. For Monika, he pointed at the trio of women still facing down the sun in song. “Wawf dancing! Bwidge Pwog!”
Nate beamed goodwill at his wife’s ex-lover. “It’s nice to finally meet you!”
Gregor nodded. “So nice to meet a man with such good taste.” He gave another nod to Maggie.
The remark might have irked a more sensitive type, but Nate didn’t flinch. He squatted in front of Monika’s stroller. “And hello to you, pretty lady!” he exclaimed a little too loudly. The girl gave him a slow, silent, half-lidded once-over.
For a moment the murmur of the passing mass and the drone of the organ filled the space left by their voices. Nate held his grin for Monika’s perusal. Ralph leaned back in his seat and heaved a sigh that sounded to Maggie like a white flag for the sandman. Gregor contemplated all three with a hint of a smile on his lips. Maggie strained to hear the lapping of the Vltava, but caught only the hum of a nearby boat’s motor over the chatter of tourists.
Another umbrella-wielding tour guide jostled Gregor on her way to the cross a few paces down. A new cluster of bodies began to crowd into their space, the guide’s authoritative Italian competed with the trio’s devotional, and Gregor grew restless. “Come,” he raised his voice to them over the cacophony. “We go.”
“I am forgetting.” Gregor spoke up over his shoulder as he led them, single file, through the stone tower gate. “It is always like this, now.” Down the slope they had climbed to reach the bridge, Maggie noticed another marionette shop. Huge, elaborate figurines dangled in the doorway, making multi-coloured faces at the world going by. In the stroller behind them, Ralph started a laugh that trailed off into a yawn. Gregor followed an eddy of people down a tunnel passage to the right, and finished his thought. “If you come to the Bridge at sunrise, it’s like before. But now, things are ‘better,’ you know?”
The street shed its tourists as it shrugged off its claustrophobic Old-World layout and opened up on the Vltava. Though the sidewalk widened, they stayed in single file for several paces. Gregor had seemed rushed in escaping the rubbernecked mob. Now he plodded ahead, hunched forward and leaning into rather than pushing his stroller. His every step seemed a slow and deliberate tread against the current of the river beside them. Maggie turned to catch a final glimpse of Ralph’s pupils. She watched him let out that first sigh of sleep, then looked up at Nate his chauffeur. Nate mimed a sigh of his own, made a motion as if wiping his forehead, then set about gaping at the old waterfront buildings, the latest examples of Art Nouveau architecture that so dazzled him here.
A few long strides brought Maggie to Gregor’s side. “I am taking you to a nice place,” he told her. “Many foreigners, like you, but they are making great salmon.” In front of him, Monika gazed lazily through the green copper railing that lined the street, out at the shimmering river. Small, two-person paddle boats meandered to and fro between the shores. Maggie wondered if the girl’s eye might be on one or another of them. She wondered if the girl was even seeing them. “She is just waking up,” Gregor said. “Night owl, like you said.”
The walk took them uphill; the river dropped away below them. At length they came to a break in the railing. A platform of metal grating jutted out from the edge of the walkway, from which a long metal staircase led down to a stone patio behind the trees that lined the river’s edge. Gregor halted his girl’s stroller and waited a moment for Nate to close ranks with him. “We go down here.”
An awkward ballet ensued as they disengaged the children from their strollers. Nate hefted Ralph onto his chest. He held him there with one arm, arching backward to better absorb the boy’s weight. With his free hand he started passing Maggie the various bags they had hung from their stroller’s handles. Each of them took stabs at collapsing the thing. When she had put all of the bags on the ground, gritted her teeth, shaken the thing, and even kicked it without success, Maggie tossed the bags into the seat and made ready to walk down the stairs with the stroller open.
Meanwhile, Gregor had hoisted Monika into his arms, and was standing on the metal landing in wait. Monika’s incredible tininess bared itself as she clung to her father. Gregor, no giant himself, cradled her like a baby doll, one arm holding up her knees so that her sneakered feet pointed at the treetops. Those legs. Those arms. They looked like twigs, mere bones wrapped in a skein of skin. Her face seemed somehow compressed, some way stretched. Curled up, tiny limbs bent at strange angles, she resembled nothing so much as one of those shop-window marionettes, with its strings hopelessly tangled above it.
Gregor swung his child about to gesture at her stroller, “You come back for it?” and the stairs, “These... I am always forgetting...”
Maggie sensed a sad frustration in his voice. “We can find another place to—”
“No.” Burdened though it was, his voice became firm. “We have come here.” This last was a declaration. So down they went, first Gregor, then Nate, with Maggie easing the laden stroller down, step by step behind them. The smell of the grill, visible at the bottom and sizzling with an array of steaks, sausages and fish, rose to meet her. It reminded her that she had barely touched her breakfast.
When they reached the bottom, Nate nestled Ralph back into his seat and bounded back up to retrieve Monika’s stroller. Gregor stood facing Maggie and caught his breath. “She is not heavy,” he felt compelled to explain. “It’s just work to...”
“To take care?” Maggie assisted him, and felt a twinge of memory from the hours when each sentence, to their every conversation, would start with Gregor and end with a helpful word from her. He nodded. His cologne mingled with the smell of cooking meat. And out of his exertion arose a third scent: the smell of riding into the sunset on a train home from Jones Beach, of making love on hot Manhattan nights. It was the smell she thought she could still catch in her bedroom, months after he had flown home, the very same that had somehow come back to her nostrils two years later as she sat on the phone with him, long distance, taking tidy breaths and grinning furiously down the phone while he regaled her with stories of his beautiful bride-to-be.
As if to further explain himself, Gregor spoke again. “I have many friends. They are all smitten,” he pronounced that word delicately, almost showing it off, “smitten, with my girl.” He squeezed his daughter. “I always have help.” After a moment the better word occurred to him: “Support.”
Maggie felt words leave her mouth, and felt regret to realize what they were. “And your wife?” In all his recent emails, Gregor had only referred to the woman once, briefly, as his ‘ex.’
Gregor did not object to the question. He just looked up at the sun through the treetops, and sighed. “My wife,” he repeated. “My wife. Yes.” He shook his head and kissed his daughter over her bangs. “Not everyone can have... this... every day.” His mouth closed, and his lips thinned.
Maggie searched for words and found only “Oh, Gregor.” Somehow she was glad that more did not come to her.
“Do not be sad, Magda.” He was suddenly hopeful in the face. “I have the girl I want. I am happy.”
Nate lumbered back into their space and plunked the second stroller at Gregor’s feet. Once Gregor had his daughter strapped into it, they maneuvered over to a table. Conversation shifted to more frivolous things. Through a puff of cigarette smoke, Gregor asked how the Islanders were doing (“My Islanders,” he called them). She asked him how things had changed in the Czech Republic since his return; he listed the country’s glowing economic achievements, in true Gregor fashion, like he was chronicling the onset of cancer. Gregor ordered for them, grilled salmon all around. The fish, when it came, made Maggie glad they’d persevered with the strollers. Cocking his head at Monika, Gregor commented, “She ate at home.” He chuckled. “Salmon would not go with her breakfast.”
Midway through his own dish, Nate leaned over the side of the table to address Monika. “You are a sweetie, did you know that?” The girl, contenting herself with the view of the Vltava almost at their feet, turned sloth-like to face him. They locked gazes and held them, each studying the other. The change of pitch in Nate’s voice signalled that he was talking now to his adult company. “I’m not just saying that. She’s beautiful.”
“I am very lucky.” Gregor sipped delicately at a tall glass of pilsner. Two thirds of it had disappeared already. They took in the scenery; the paddle boats making kamikaze runs at the bows of large tour boats; the family of swans, two great white beauties and their five fuzzy gray cygnets resting in the tall grass by the shore. Ralph breathed deeply and loudly through his nose as he slept. Two more beers vanished into Gregor. Maggie had forgotten how he could drink. Watching him now, she felt renewed amazement to think that he could put away twice what he had already and only seem to sink ever so slightly into his skin. Sure enough, when he rose from the table and unhitched Monika’s handle brake, he did it with graceful motion and a steady hand. “Come. We go.”
At the base of the stairs, the dance of the strollers went like clockwork. Waiting at the top for Nate to return with Monika’s stroller, Gregor looked at Maggie with a thoughtful eye. He seemed to be pondering something. “I like him,” he said finally.
For a moment, Maggie was puzzled. “You mean Nate?”
Gregor nodded at her husband, who had managed to collapse the frame of Monika’s chariot and was hefting it up the first few steps below. “Yes. Nate.” He held his daughter out a few inches to look her in the eyes. “Máte ho také ráda, you like him too, yes, my darling?” With affection he hoisted her further up, bringing her cheek to rest against his. Maggie was suddenly struck by the girl’s pronounced brow, with its two neat, thick strips of dark brown hair, peeking out from under her bangs as she bounced. It seemed to run into Gregor’s own beside it, a single horizontal line that, for all their differences in features, seemed to tie them together into the same face. She thought of a moment six years ago: after thirty-six hours of despair, a day and a half awake, crying uncontrollably until her eyes and cheeks hurt with an ache to match the new wound in her heart. Looking down with her through his own tears at the creature that occupied the hospital bassinet, Nate had suddenly lost track of his grief. After a pause, in a sort of perplexed calm, he had said, “He’s got your lips.” Then, for the first time in two days, for the first time in their newborn son’s life, he had kissed her.
She looked at Ralphie now, settled again in slumber, with that same non-expression of sleep and those same lips that had, in that dark time, been her lifeline. And looking once more at Gregor and the tiny, misshapen bundle that had just proven itself as his daughter, she felt a pang of the rush she had felt back then, with the great burst of clarity that had at that long-ago moment given her a porthole through the tears.
Nate was breathing heavily, noisily, through his nose as he cleared the top step. His face glistened, and as he wiped his forehead, he mused, “Boy, it’s hot. When does it cool down in these parts?” But in fact his words brought to Maggie’s attention just how pleasant the air had become. She had forgotten the baking heat some time before they had found refuge from it at the bank of the cool river. Viewed from street-level once more, the sun had climbed down from its zenith to rest over the fairy-tale steepled and turreted rooftops of the opposite hillside. It now shone rather than blazed. To Maggie it felt fine.
Though no one said it, Maggie knew as they walked that they were headed back to the bridge to say their goodbyes. Gregor trudged ahead of them, head bowed and nodding lightly as he spoke softly to his daughter in Czech. Maggie laughed when Nate declared, working as much enthusiasm as he could into a confidential murmur, “I like him.” He waited for her to return to listening, and went on. “I like them both,” he said, and Maggie smiled in agreement.
They rejoined the bustle of people and inched their way through the gate onto the bridge. Still the density of the crowd had not let up. Although surely most of those who had surrounded her here over an hour ago had moved on, a new batch of tourists had replenished their number, a hundred new faces of the same ten-thousand-headed monster. Somewhere up ahead they heard music. A trumpet blared, a banjo strummed, and a percussive swishing noise underpinned it all with a leisurely shuffle. Gregor glanced back at Maggie, flashed a smile, and forged ahead with new purpose. He sped forward, whirled Monika to a side when he saw a gap between bodies, and hopped on his toes in a nervous jig when his avenue was blocked and he was forced to a complete stop. In time, he worked his way to the outskirts of a gaggle of spectators enjoying the free show at the left-hand wall of the bridge.
Maggie and Nate drew up beside him. Between the heads in front of them, Maggie could see the source of the merry noise. There was the trumpet, the banjo, and the washboard in the centre, each played with mellow gusto by a cheerful old Czech. Intermingled with them were a clarinetist and a trombonist, and at their flanks bopped a double bass player and another, a portly fellow with a thick white beard framing his friendly, yellow-toothed smile. The music was Dixieland, and to Maggie’s ears it rang authentic, with the easy swing she would expect over the Mississippi rather than the Vltava.
Monika fidgeted in her seat. Gregor patted her hair, mussing her bangs. “My friends,” he said to Maggie. “Her friends.” The arc of tourists that shielded the band from view shed bodies here and there as onlookers got their fill. Gregor jockeyed his way up to the front, then squeezed to one side to open up a place for Maggie and Nate to edge into. As Nate brought Ralph’s stroller to a stop, the boy stirred. His eyes opened to a groggy squint, and for a few bars he sat and absorbed the music. In the space between the band and its standing audience, a pair of girls in tank tops danced a timid, unschooled jitterbug. Ralph watched them with a detached awe. Gradually, his eyes adjusted, and he sat up straight.
The white-bearded performer tapped the disembodied horn of a trumpet against his thigh. His bushy-browed eyes roved across the audience. Suddenly they bulged, the man let out an excited whoop, and Maggie knew he had spotted his friend. As if by reflex, he punched once at the air with his brass contraption. The band stopped playing.
His horn-end still aloft, the man thrust a finger at Monika. “Mo-mo! Mo-mo!” he hollered excitedly. The band mimed hellos at Gregor’s little girl. Gregor nodded at them. The corner of his mouth curled upward, and a dimple pierced his cheek. A second passed. The bandleader brought the brass piece to form a megaphone at his mouth. Into the silence, in accented English, he fired, “One! Two! Three! Four!”
The tune the band launched into took a moment to vibrate its way into the vault of Maggie’s memory. In fits and starts of call and response, the bandleader traded bars with the musicians, growling his best Satchmo-growl into his horn, apparently in Czech.
“Pojeď se mnou na výlet...”
The sprightly pulse went to Ralph’s hips each time the band burst in. The stroller shook with his seated gyrations. The stop-start rhythm, coming after an abrupt halt to the previous number, fatally punctured the dancing girls’ nerve. Sharing an embarrassed laugh, they skulked away, leaving empty the buffer zone between audience and performers. Ralph jabbed his forefinger at the space. “Dancing!” he ordered. “Walph! Dancing!” But the words reached his mother only as a faint echo, for the bandleader had sung the words “New Orleans,” and a dam in her memory had burst.
“Pojeď se mnou do New Orleans,” he had sung.
“Come along with me, down to New Orleans,” she had heard.
A new flood of recollections, locked away for a dozen shifting eras of her life, now overwhelmed her. ‘Basin Street Blues.’ Gregor’s song. What the words would do to him, whether coming from Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, or the keyboard player in the 4th Street subway station. That smile, the way it drew down his eyelids and bunched up his cheeks. The inevitable moment when she would find herself swaying in his arms, the way he would pull her in by the waist until their hips would bump, so excited, so taken with the music, would he get.
“New Orleans, Země snů...” went this Bohemian blues.
“New Orleans, land of dreams...” followed her brain.
She barely noticed as Nate unbuckled Ralph from his seat. The onslaught of her reverie continued as the boy ambled over to take his position front-and-center. Gregor’s dream. The countless times he had implored her, “Magda, we’ll go, won’t we? To New Orleans? Maybe in the summer?” And she had wanted to take him there, to wander the French Quarter, or take in a few sets at Preservation Hall. She had genuinely wanted to be his guide, though she’d never been to the city herself. She had believed, with a certain happy dread, that she would one day watch him dance with abandon there, to the tune of a street-corner saxophone. She had pictured him in motion, hair wild, sweat staining his shirt in the soupy heat, that carefree, open-mouthed grin radiating from his face, washing out the lines of worry that he always blamed on being in America and “poorly in English.”
“Budou se objímat a líbat...”
“They’ll be huggin’, and a kissin’...”
That moment she’d envisioned, when he would pull her into his dancefloor. Her cheeks would ignite, she had thought, she would sweat a few self-conscious beads, but then the aroma of his excitement would envelop her, and her step would fall in time with his.
“To je to, co mě chybělo...”
“That’s what I been missin’...”
She couldn’t remember at what point he had stopped bringing it up. She couldn’t blame him for giving up on it. The years of work pursuing her degree, the brutal schedule she had taken on when she joined the firm, all had conspired against her good intentions. Over time, he had asked her less and less frequently. And by the end she was the one pulling him in to dance when those familiar notes rang out. And though he always followed along, and though he still held her just as tightly, the glow had left his smile, and she had realized that New Orleans was not in their future.
“New Orleans, mám náladu alá Basin Street!”
“New Orleans, I got them Basin Street Blues!”
But the unhappy memory was fleeting, its pang of regret quick to fade. The world of the present came back to her. Gregor had wheeled Monika forward, and the bandleader sang at the little girl as if serenading her alone. Indeed, the whole band leaned in, offering the song to her without regard for a crowd that Maggie noticed had swelled. A solo by the washboard player started a long instrumental break. As he strummed a hissing rhythm, Maggie felt a tap on her shoulder. Nate was gesturing at Ralph. “There he goes again!”
And there he was, swinging his hands over his head, swaying from side to side, tapping his fists together. The bandleader pulled his attention from Monika and discovered Ralph. His whiskers rippled, his jaw dropped, and he bellowed anew. “A-ha!” He broke from the line-up and padded over to soft-shoe beside Maggie’s boy.
Nate was fumbling with his camera, his thick thumb and forefinger struggling to grip the tiny dial that turned it on. “Come on, kiddo!” he urged, more to himself than to his son. “Keep it up!”
The bandleader bent over and took Ralph’s hand. With a delighted squeal the boy yanked the old man’s arm in the sawing motion of his dance. But his small fingers slipped from the big man’s grasp, and he fell back sprawling on the hard stone walk.
At the audible gasp of the crowd, Nate looked up from his camera. Seeing his son, he sprang forward. In the same instant, Maggie felt her own feet take wing. Like a shot she bolted a step ahead of her husband, and laid a hand on his arm. “Watch the stroller,” she commanded over her shoulder, eyes always on Ralph. “Get a good photo.”
Ralph had rolled onto his belly, and was working himself up to his knees when Maggie reached him. He looked up at her with a wide-eyed mix of pain and fear, his lower lip trembling. The bandleader, standing over the boy, apparently unsure of what he should do, mumbled a few words in Czech that his helpless expression translated to an apology. She gave him a forgiving nod and bent down to help her son.
“Walph didda fall! Didda hurt!” Ralph told her, but with the nearness of his mother, his urgent feelings diminished, and she found no marks on him as she dusted him off and pulled him to stand. The washboard that had been swishing in the background was joined by a trumpet. The horn’s brassy blare tickled the boy’s ears and distracted him from whatever pain he still felt. “Twoppet,” he said.
The trumpet player, a sooty-faced beanpole in an engineer’s cap and candy-cane striped vest, pointed his horn at Ralph. At each shower of notes, the boy laughed and clapped for more. As the horn solo ended and the man leaned back in line with his band-mates, the bandleader brought his megaphone back to his mouth. He wheezed the low notes of the middle eight at Ralph, his free hand on his knee.
“Basin Street je místo...”
“Basin Street, is the street...”
Ralph stared at him, clearly pleased but immobile. After a few bars, the old man swung his upper body to face Monika.
“Kde se potkávají elity...”
“Where the elite, like to meet...”
The girl watched him intently, upper teeth splayed against her lower lip, brown eyes bulging beyond their almond shape. Maggie wondered for a second if this was what happiness looked like on the girl’s face.
“Sing! Singing!” Ralph said. “Man...is...singing!”
“Yes, he is!” Maggie took his hand and squeezed it. Three words, he’d said. Not bad at all. But still he hadn’t budged. “Come on, Ralphie!” Still grasping his hand, she started tapping at the air with the music. After a bar she felt his arm take up the beat. “Now, where were you?” She brought his hand toward her, then back at him, toward her, then back at him. That was all he needed.
“Saw! Saw!” He let her hold on for that step, then tugged himself free and hunkered back down into the rest of his dance. Each stomp, just a hair behind the beat, brought him half a step closer to the old man.
“Jen kdyby ses do té muziky zaposlouchal...”
“And all that music, lord if you just listen...”
The trombone broke in with its honking wah-wah. Ralph turned briefly to see the new lead instrument, his dance reducing itself to a distracted sway. Returning his attention to his entourage, he caught sight of Monika at the same time that the girl noticed him. She perked up, cocking her head and craning her neck to look at him as her body tilted forward. Ralph waved at her. “Hi!” He paused, then waved again. “Hi, Monka!” And without a moment to bask in the pride that he had remembered her name, he was back dancing. The bandleader shimmied beside him for only another bar before seeing he wasn’t needed and retreating back in line with his musicians.
“Hel-ping! Hel-ping!” Ralph took two strides forward, almost up to Monika’s face. Her eyes widened, then became slits as he danced away and went into the spin that heralded his big finish. The line of her mouth carved itself further and further across each cheek, straining to almost reach each ear. Ralph bent down and pushed himself back up. His set jaw displayed the intensity of his performance. And with the trombone player nudging his slide in the kid’s direction, pointing all eyes to his star turn, the boy’s arms stretched up, his right foot lunged out into the air, and all his limbs slammed back down again. “Jump!” His left foot never left the ground.
Monika’s lips parted. Her eyes shut. Maggie imagined her pupils turning inward to behold the glow of joy that radiated from within her. Her tiny upper teeth, a yellowing Stonehenge along her deep pink gums, glinted with saliva in the sunlight. Her head lolled, the lolling turned into a nod that almost matched the music, and the nodding gained vigor until her whole upper body rocked against her seat.
“Nejsi rád, že jsi se mnou šel...”
“Now aren’t you glad you went with me...”
Gregor’s hand came down to stroke the little girl’s head. He mouthed something in Czech, calming words that the music drowned out. Her body relaxed, and she returned to joyous head-bobbing. Her open maw still emanated her hideous, beautiful ecstasy. The music still behind him, his audience so adoring, Ralph took only a few bars of staring before starting his dance over.
And there was Gregor, bringing his hand back to rest on the handle of Monika’s stroller. He tapped a finger lightly as his eyes wandered across his musician friends, then looked down at his daughter. And he was smiling. It was odd: the lines that bounded his mouth deepened as his grin spread, and his cheeks bunched into dimples like a curtain being pulled back. His crow’s feet multiplied, dug in. Even his nose gained a wrinkle. His face was a leathery, weather-beaten mess. But then he leaned over, kissed his fingers and touched them to Monika’s cheek. As he straightened up, his mouth opened. The wrinkles only cut in and branched out, but something about that face touched Maggie’s heart. Though it only lasted a short second, Maggie saw in that moment, in that expression, a tiny lifetime of music and sunbeams and family. As it faded, Maggie felt her own cheeks relax, and realized that the smile had spread to her face as well.
“Panebože, jmenuje se to Basin Street...”
“Heaven on Earth, they call it Basin Street...”
The beat collapsed under Ralph’s feet as the song broke down and wound up in a sloppy coda. At a loss, he at first froze in mid-step. When the wave of applause that rose from the crowd signaled to him that the performance was over, he set himself in motion again, skipping ahead to his jump-stomping grand finale. Then he turned from facing Monika and gave the band a hearty cheer. “Yay, music!” A few in the crowd held their hands out and offered their claps to the boy as he turned back to look at them. His exclamation, “Aaah!” told them that he accepted their adulation.
Maggie approached him and took his hand to lead him back to Nate and his stroller. She glanced back at Monika. The little girl’s mouth had closed, her eyes had opened, and her gentle nodding slowed to a stop. Her spirit seemed to retreat back into the cocoon of her body, and in a few seconds she was back to passive watching – passive, but not vacant; Maggie could see that now.
Wordlessly, Gregor moved in step with her the few paces back to Nate’s side. His eye was on some far-off point downriver. His smile had shrunken back to its usual weary friendliness, but the pleasant creases it had made lingered, and he still had that gleam in his eye. He still looked as though he’d just planted his flag on a mountaintop.
“There’s my boy!” Nate crowed at his son. Ralph took his accolades in stride, fairly lunging at his seat in the stroller and giggling when his dad swooped in to kiss his forehead. Looking back up at Maggie, Nate tapped the camera that he still had cradled in his palm. “I got a great shot.”
Gregor shifted a little in his place until Nate stood back up and got their parting underway. “I understand you’ve got an appointment today,” he said. “I guess this is where we say goodbye.” Gregor nodded, and Nate shook his hand. “It was a real pleasure.”
“For me, too,” Gregor replied. He bent to take up Ralph’s tiny fist. “Be a good boy,” he said to him. “Never stop dancing.” For Maggie he had only a warm embrace, a tender kiss on each cheek, and a wink as he stepped back.
Maggie squatted beside Monika’s stroller. To the heavy lids that looked back at her she said, “You are beautiful.” Those lids blinked at that moment. “Take good care of your daddy, okay?” Maggie added, and they blinked again.
With that, the trio broke off from the pair. Maggie looked back one last time to see Gregor pull up alongside his musician friends, before the flow of humans into the space they had left obscured her view.
They joined the line back the way they had come, and shuffled forward in thoughtful silence. After a minute, Nate’s voice rose above the hubbub: “Do you think he’s happy?” He continued after another moment’s thought. “Should he be?” And he was mute once more. They passed the tower gate. The line halted to allow a trolley to pass on the street ahead of them. Just when Maggie had thought his musing was over, he picked up on his same thought: “I think so.” He patted Ralph’s head. “I hope so.” The words seemed to Maggie like the wisest he had ever uttered. Then he turned to her, and brought a hand to her face. With a gentle twitch of his thumb he brushed a tear from her cheek.
The tears remained close to the surface for awhile after the Charles Bridge. Maggie had a quick jag of crying an hour later, while they watched the dance of figurines that accompanied the tolling of the Astronomical Clock. She sniffled that evening when Ralph peed in the toilet before they set him down to some well-earned sleep. She cried as he slept, while she and Nate made love in the next bed, cried in grateful silence when Nate held her afterwards without asking any questions. And she cried five nights later, on the eve of their departure from Prague, when she went to the toilet and saw that she was bleeding. Her eyes never stung. Her sobs were never heavy. She shed her tears like some inner skin, and each time one fell past her lips, she felt her tongue reach out to catch it, and she savoured its saltiness like candy.