Ash doesn’t get out of bed to say goodbye. She never does. It’s best this way, watching him walk away from her, memorizing the curve of his back, his straight shoulders. She is practicing for the final time — for it will come, she tells herself, as it always does. Although it is her bed, her door, she has never followed him there. To stand at the door is too much like marriage — the perky wife sending her husband off, the brisk sexless kiss. Better this way, to remind herself that this bed is where their loving starts and stops.
Richard turns at the door and faces her. “So it’s set, then? Friday morning? Don’t worry, Brevard’s the best.” Ash looks down at the covers. “Don’t start again. Please.”
He’s right, she thinks. Don’t start again. It’s settled. Richard puts his umbrella down. He kneels at the edge of the bed and begins to stroke her hair. I will not cry, she tells herself.
But it is Richard who is crying. “There’s so much I want to give you, but there’s Emily and the kids. I can’t start over.”
“I’ll be fine. Have a good Thanksgiving,” she says.
“You sure you don’t want me there? I can cancel my patients.”
Ash waves him away. “You’re late. Emily will be worried.” He grabs his umbrella and closes the door. She hears his footsteps hurrying up the stairs.
Last week while she was in bed with the first bout of morning sickness, she watched the “Donahue” show. The woman he was interviewing, a fleshy redhead who leaned sensuously toward the camera, had just written The Mistress Book. She crossed her legs and swung her open-toed shoe, talking on and on about equal rights for mistresses. It’s a bum rap, the woman said. We give so much and get nothing in return. It’s a patriarchal trap, a losing battle. We give the best years of our lives and end up alone. No security.
Ash had lain in bed, nauseous and weak. She squinted, imagining she was the one in the interview chair, telling her story. What would she say? She had never felt the bitterness this woman was describing — only a wanting so deep there was no room for anything else. Ash had never been a mistress and never would be. But as the camera panned the studio audience — row after row of wives, out for the day away from children, wives who would prepare dinner and meet their husbands with a smile — she knew she couldn’t be that either. All she knew was that when she first saw Richard that Saturday morning two years ago, her heart turned over. He was standing at the cash register, buying grass seed and fertilizer and a flat of pansies. She looked at the gold ring on his hand. It was a clean, delicate hand, half-moons rising from the cuticles, carefully trimmed nails. She imagined his home — the manicured yard, the children playing catch by the swing set.
The phone rings and Ash reaches across the bed to answer it. Her voice is low and husky as it always is after love. She hopes it’s Richard, stopping at a phone booth to say goodnight.
“Ash, honey. Are you sick?”
“It’s the air down there.”
“People weren’t meant to live in cellars.”
“It’s a basement apartment.”
“Cellar, basement. What’s the difference? It’s underground. It can’t be good for you.”
Seeds do perfectly well underground, Ash is thinking.
She has worked in Pop’s Greenhouse for ten years, since she finished college. Six years ago, when Pop had his second heart attack, he offered her his basement apartment. With the greenhouse above her, just twelve steps up, she can live and work for days without leaving. She looks so natural in the dark green smock, watering ferns or pinching back wild vines, her face white and vulnerable against the leafy background of scheffleras and palms. It’s easy to see why men fall in love with her, this pale lovely creature bent over flower beds, looking up to smile into their tired faces as she suggests the perfect plant for their homes.
“And it’s so dark. How anyone can live without windows.”
Ash starts to correct her mother, to remind her she does have windows, but they’ve been through this before. Her mother visited her apartment only once, four years ago, and Eleanor never noticed the windows. “You’re living like a mole,” was all she said, shaking her head. But Ash loves the narrow windows that float near the ceiling of the apartment. She likes having to stand on tiptoe to see the ground. It’s a view few people see — the space where the ground meets the air, where, in spring, grass sprouts and you can see not only the green, but the beginnings, the origins down deep. Black soil presses against the glass, and Ash feels she is inside a huge terrarium, looking out. Now the November grass lies flat and brown, but already she feels the stirrings below ground, the seeds asleep but ticking, waiting for March and the sun. And in the greenhouse above her, lilies and orchids are asleep, closed tightly for the night.
“Ash, are you listening?”
“Pumpkin or pecan?”
“Pumpkin. Didn’t I say that?” Ash bought the pies earlier today — Mrs. Smith’s. They’re in the freezer.
“Did you remember the whipped cream?”
“I’ll pick some up on the way.”
“The stores will be closed, remember? Thanksgiving.”
What about people who don’t celebrate? Ash wonders. What do they do if they need something?
“That’s okay, dear. I got some, just in case.”
Ash leans back on the pillow. “What’s Aunt Stella bringing?”
“Her usual. Sweet-potato casserole, pea salad. And cranberries. Fresh. Not the ones that slide out of the can.”
“I’ve got the centerpiece, Mother.” Ash glances at the flowers, brilliant in the black vase. The idea came to her last summer: why not grow something exotic, something out of season? She chose early purple orchids and white lilies-of-the-Nile and red Gerber daisies, planting them in a corner of the greenhouse. This arrangement will be like no other, she thinks. Early summer at Thanksgiving.
“That’s wonderful. See you at noon. Don’t be late, now. You know how your father is.”
“Mother?” Ash tucks the quilt beneath her chin. She is about to ask who else is coming, for there is always someone else — always some stranger waiting in the den with her father. Once it was Deacon Chalmer’s son, fresh from law school. Then the dentist who had just joined her parents’ church. Last year it was a newly divorced C.P.A. from United Trust. When Ash saw him sitting on the naugahyde sofa below the mounted head of the deer, she knew how desperate her parents had become. Years ago they would never have approved of her dating a divorced man. Now they were bringing one home for Thanksgiving dinner.
“What is it, dear?”
“Nothing. See you tomorrow.”
“Now rest up. Plenty of blankets, okay?”
“Okay.” Ash hangs up the phone and reaches for the kimono draped at the foot of the bed. She slips it over her shoulders and walks to the bathroom mirror. Her body is long and slim and white, the shoulders curved slightly in. She leans forward to study her face, surprised at the pink flush on her cheeks. Yes, she thinks. The books are right. This is a woman’s best time. She touches her breasts. They are tender, more full.
The phone call came three weeks ago on a Friday morning as she knelt to repot yellow mums. “Ms. McGloughlin? Dr. Brevard’s office. We have the results of your test.”
After she hung up, Ash went back to the mums, her mind alive with questions. What would I do with a baby? What about its last name, its future? And what will Richard say? But she knew what he would say. They’d settled it months ago — she would start on the pill and, if anything went wrong, she’d have an abortion. Otherwise, he’d said, I’ll have to leave.
So she’d seen Dr. Brevard and gotten the prescription. She’d even waited in line at the drugstore to get a three-months’ supply. But when the time came to take the first pill, something kept her from the promise, and now here she was with the seed of a baby inside her. And by Friday it would be gone. She knew she could do it, as she had five years ago when the diaphragm failed. It had taken two hours, from the time she stepped through the clinic door until she lay in her own bed, free yet hollow inside, as if the best part of herself had been scraped away. She’d promised herself it wouldn’t happen again.
Yet it has happened again, she thinks, as she splashes cool water on her face. But tomorrow is Thanksgiving. At my parents’. I’ll have to get through that first. She slides between the sheets and tosses for nearly an hour, then falls into an exhausted sleep. She dreams of kneeling in the damp beds of the greenhouse, between rows of exotic lilies. As she leans to water the first flower, its petals open and sunlight filters through the frosted windows. Flower after flower she waters, and just as she bends to water the last one — a rare purple lily — its petals open and a tiny baby, white and naked, crawls out and rests in the palm of her hand. She watches as the baby turns slowly, warming itself in the stream of sun. Finally the baby crawls past the stem of her arm and onto the greenhouse floor, where it begins to explore each fallen leaf and petal.
Ash wakes curled into herself, her hand cupped lightly on her stomach, right where the fullness begins. It’s late, nearly ten, but she feels no urgency. The bed is warm and her mind still gauzy with sleep. She lets the dream escape slowly, then eases herself out of bed. Above her, morning sun makes its way through the narrow windows.
Ash steers the Volkswagen into the pebbled driveway, behind her father’s Lincoln. When she switches off the ignition, the car coughs for a few seconds, wheezes, then gives its last gasp. She likes these first seconds when the rumblings cease and she’s left with the stillness. Aunt Stella’s blue Pontiac is parked in its usual spot, right in front of the house, but Ash doesn’t recognize the other car, the sporty red Renault. She reaches for the pies, covered with foil and resting on the cookie sheet, still warm. She’ll come back for them in a few minutes. Carefully she lifts the vase from the box where she has wedged it for safety. She walks up the driveway and stops a moment beside the gate. The afternoon is crisp but sunny, unusual for November. When she looks up, her mother is standing at the back door, rubbing her plump bare arms.
“Brrrr. You’ll catch your death out there.” Eleanor shooes her daughter inside. “You should have come in the front,” she says.
Ash sets the flowers on the washing machine. Her mother’s back is to her and Ash kisses her on the neck. Eleanor blushes and turns to the cranberries, spooning them into a crystal bowl. Well, I can’t put it off any longer, Ash thinks. She pushes the swinging door that opens into the dining room just as Stella enters, tying an apron around her waist.
“Ash! I didn’t see you come in.”
“I sneaked in the back.”
“Too much company for you?” Stella smiles with her gray eyes. It is a secret that passes between them, this shared disdain for the annual stranger in their midst.
“Let me guess,” whispers Ash, leaning close to her aunt’s ear. “An undertaker?”
“Close!” Stella laughs and grabs Ash’s arm.
“How’s Uncle Herschel? He’s here, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes. About the same.” Voices rumble close, behind the swinging doors. Then the double doors open and her father steps in. Jim’s presence fills the threshold.
“Well, there she is! We were beginning to wonder.” Jim steps to the side to reveal the plump figure behind him. “This is Carl Paughkeepsie, our new education director. Carl — my daughter Ash.”
“Hello.” The man reaches out a dry limp hand to Ash.
“I was just on my way out to get the pies.”
He leans toward her. “Pumpkin?”
“My favorite!” he says, grinning significantly at Jim. Suddenly Ash wishes she’d brought pecan.
“They’re Mrs. Smith’s,” she says. “Frozen.” Her father coughs nervously. She glances at Stella, who winks as Ash heads past her to the front door.
Ash takes another sip of iced tea, wishing it were wine. She searches for her aunt’s eyes over the centerpiece the florist delivered right before dinner. It’s an FTD Thanksgiving arrangement — a straw basket brimming with gourds and pumpkins and Indian corn waxed to a brilliant shine. The card reads, “Happy Thanksgiving. Love, Roger, Carrie, and the kids.” Ash’s bouquet has been moved from the center of the table and now rests between the gravy boat and tea pitcher.
The phone rings and Jim excuses himself. It’s Mrs. Bartelby, the widow in his congregation who always hits her worst depressions right in the middle of holiday dinners. Carl Paughkeepsie, sitting between Ash and Eleanor, looks lost. He keeps watching the double doors for Jim’s return. Finally Eleanor stands and carries the empty pitcher to the kitchen. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Carl butters another roll and chews; Ash concentrates on her sweet potatoes. Finally, the silence is too much for him. He leans toward Ash, grabbing the first available topic that drifts to him. “Ash. Is that a nickname? It must stand for something.”
Ash reaches for a second helping of sweet potatoes. “Just Ash.” It’s a question she’s been asked hundreds of times and although Carl looks puzzled, she isn’t about to give the whole story. Only the family knows. And Richard.
Thirty-three years ago, when Jim and Eleanor’s name finally reached the top of the adoption list, there was only one baby available. Ash was beautiful, with pale skin and eyes feathered with black lashes. Her mother was a sickly teenager who couldn’t even name the father, but who insisted on the right to name her child. The young woman died the morning the baby was to leave the hospital. She died in the very act of signing the birth certificate, right in what might have been the middle of her daughter’s name. The certificate read only “Ash” and the ink looped a little upward from the “h” so that one might guess any ending — Ashley or Ashton, or something exotic like Ashiva, or perhaps simply the more graceful Ashe. Jim and Eleanor followed through on their part of the bargain and named their daughter Ash, but they added a middle name of their own — Melinda.
For years they called her Melinda, although secretly they knew the name didn’t fit this child who spent hours alone in her room, tending the African violets and baby’s tears and maidenhair ferns that lined the shelves of her windows. So it was almost a relief to them when, in seventh grade, she began writing “Ash” on all her school papers. At first, the name felt strange to her — how quickly it ended, how small it looked on the page. Once in ninth grade she toyed with the idea of adding an “e.” But as the years passed, she grew to love the strangeness of her name, the way she loved all her differences. She knew she wasn’t a real daughter like Carrie. Ash had seen the old photographs of Eleanor, proud and huge in a pink maternity smock, holding tight to the hand of a small, dark-haired girl who looked nothing like her.
Eleanor enters, the tea pitcher in one hand and a basket of hot rolls in the other. Stella continues with the task of cutting the turkey on Herschel’s plate into bite-sized pieces — a mother’s gesture, one that Ash remembers from long ago when her mother would lean over Carrie’s plate and saw the knife back and forth. By then Ash could cut her own meat.
Stella pours more tea into Herschel’s plastic cup. It’s one of those heavy-bottomed cups that can’t tip over, the kind with a snap-on lid. For commuters and babies, Ash thinks as Herschel takes a sip.
“Is that a new one?” Eleanor asks, pointing to the bib around Herschel’s neck. Ash looks up. Over the years she’s grown accustomed to Herschel’s bibs. Eleanor squints and moves closer. “Look at those tiny stitches. Why, it’s a horn of plenty.”
Stella butters a roll for Herschel and positions it on his plate. “It came out a little lopsided, especially the pumpkins. But it’s seasonal.”
A low gasp, then a slurred mumbling, erupts from Herschel. Stella moves closer to hear. He repeats it.
“That’s right.” She nods, then looks up at the others. “He says autumn’s his favorite.” How does she do it? Ash wonders. It’s like a foreign language to me.
“Well, he has a point there. Fall certainly is beautiful,” says Eleanor. Ever since Herschel’s second stroke, Eleanor has spoken about him in the third person. You’d never know he was her brother. “It shouldn’t be long now,” she says, noticing how Carl’s eyes keep moving to the door. “Why anyone would call — on Thanksgiving, of all times.”
Carl smiles smugly and reaches for the jelly. “That’s quite all right, Mrs. McGloughlin. My father was a minister. I got used to calls — all hours of the night.”
“Too bad Carrie couldn’t make it,” says Stella. “It’s been a long time.”
“They’ll be here Christmas,” says Eleanor. “They’re visiting Roger’s parents today.” Eleanor turns to Carl. “That’s Carrie’s husband — Roger. She’s our other daughter. They live in Dallas.”
Carl smiles at Eleanor. “Are those the pictures I saw? The boy and girl?”
“The pictures! I almost forgot!” And Eleanor is up from her chair.
Herschel gasps and mumbles again. Stella announces, “He’d like more cranberries, please.” Ash passes the bowl and Stella dips another serving onto his plate. In one jerky movement, he stabs the berries with his fork and lifts them to his mouth. Ash watches closely. Stella has always surprised her — the depth of her patience, the way she carries on. Three years ago, when everyone was pushing her to put Herschel in a home, she not only refused, she cashed in all the stocks and added a sun porch on their tiny house, a place where Herschel could sit in the morning and watch the birds.
Eleanor returns with a handful of photos. She holds them carefully by the edges and comes up beside Stella. “Aren’t they adorable?”
“Is that Justin? What is he now, five?”
“Four. He’s big for his age. Takes after Roger. Roger played football in college, you know.”
“And Jennifer. Is that a school picture?”
Eleanor nods. “First grade. Seems like yesterday they were babies.” Her eyes begin to fill.
“Could I see them, Mother?”
Eleanor hurries to the other side of the table and hands Ash the pictures. Ash stares at the first one — Roger and Carrie, alone. In the next photo they’ve added a little boy and girl, miniatures of themselves, propped on their laps and smiling.
“Is everything cold?” Jim swings open the double doors.
“Oh, there’s plenty left. I’ll heat up the gravy.”
“That’s okay, honey. I’m full, but I saved just enough room. How about some of that pie?” He winks at his daughter. “I mean, Ash was up all night baking it, right?”
Ash focuses her attention on Stella, watching her gray eyes as Herschel lifts the fork to his mouth. Is this what it comes to finally? she wonders. Long ago, Stella and Herschel were lovers. Then they married and became a couple and then, as children were added, a family, suddenly kin to each other, flesh and blood. And now, after all these years, this: Stella tying a bib beneath his chin, cutting up bite-sized pieces of meat, putting him to bed early. It’s not so easy, Stella once told her, but finally in this life what do you have? He’s part of me. How can I turn him out? Ash shifts her gaze to the flowers, looking into the daisies’ eyes and the deep velvety tubes of lilies. It will be a summer baby, she decides. Born in the flowering wildness.
“Delicious!” Carl says. “The crust is so crisp.”
Ash puts down her fork and stands. “Coffee, anyone?”
“I can get it, dear.”
“No, Mother, you sit a while.” Ash pushes back her chair and walks to the kitchen, closing the double doors behind her. She hears her father’s cough and Stella’s unmistakable laughter. Then she reaches for the phone book and flips through the yellow pages. An unfamiliar voice comes on the line. “Dr. Brevard’s answering service.” Of course, Ash reminds herself — it’s Thanksgiving. The office is closed.
“I’m scheduled for an appointment in the morning. I’d like to cancel.”
“I’ll give him that message. Your full name, please? Is that Ashley?”
“When shall I reschedule?”
“I won’t be rescheduling, thank you.” Ash hangs up the phone and carries the coffeepot into the dining room. She begins at the head of the table, filling her father’s cup.
“That’s fine, honey. That’s plenty.”
“None for me.” says Carl. “It’s getting late.”
Ash bends to fill her mother’s cup, then looks across the table. Uncle Herschel is lifting his fork again, this time for pumpkin pie, and Stella sits beside him, straightening his bib.