The Stroke of Midnight
from The Widow's Guide to Edible Mushrooms
She didn’t start hating me until she was ten. We were storybook players before—Goldilocks and her bears finding their “just right,” Little Red Riding Hood feasting from a picnic basket the wolf never drooled over. Sometimes I dressed up when I read, blood-red lips for Snow White, black-penciled brows for her favorite, Cinderella.
And the wicked stepmother stared at her, heart black with envy, and said, “No, Cinderella. You will never go to the ball.”
“Never!” I cried, fingers swooping to tickle under the soft fleece of Bettina’s nightgown. “Listen to your wicked stepmother!”
She protested through giggles. “I’m going and you can’t stop me.” When I dimmed her lamp and her daddy kissed her, she sang, “Good night, Prince Daddy, good night, Wicked Stepmother. I love you!”
Jonah said I shouldn’t encourage that name, that it would inscribe me to her in negative terms. He talked that way sometimes. Academic and stern. What he meant was stereotypes and trouble down the road.
But trouble had stopped somewhere else then, light years away. We painted her room blue with tiny yellow stars, and when I dimmed the lamp, it seemed the night disappeared. Bettina asked me to make the stars stay. I bought glow-in-the-dark paint and carefully traced every star with my brush.
The stars stayed aglow, their magic dispelling long after she fell to sleep.
I met Jonah at a costume party. Captain Hook with a cascade of black curls and a jaunty hat. That hook, though plastic and dull, snagged my tail and plucked it off. I was a Playboy bunny, and only later did I discover that Jonah had once teased our party hostess that he would only settle down when he found a Playboy bunny with brains. It was a set-up, and the hostess was delighted that he caught me first.
“Fate,” she threatened when she called the next day. A word that gives me shivers.
At the party I brought Jonah martinis on a tin platter I scrounged from the kitchen. I wiggled my nose and pretended to be scared when he brandished his hook. I begged for my tail, but he tied it to his belt loop like a scalp or a pelt. He teased in his loud captain’s voice, “Bunny, you’re going to have to work for it.”
And everyone saw then and there how we would fall in love.
I drank the martinis because he preferred beer—“ale, lassy, ale”—and my heart surged with hope. Thirty-three and towing a line of heartbreaks, each worse than the one before, I was nearly resigned to getting a dog, faithful and always there.
After Tate, the rehab counselor, I’d actually walked through the pet store, watching two beagle pups chew each other’s ears. He’d left me after three years for one of his former clients, a heroin addict I’d heard so much about that I thought of her as family, some crazy distant cousin. It never dawned on me until much later that he’d broken confidentiality only with that client, some guilty impulse toward confession. Then one day he packed his self-help books, saying, “She needs me. You’ve never been an addict, Jamie. Your life is so…” He struggled for the word. “So clean.”
I looked around the gutted apartment, our possessions sorted into piles that kept collapsing. I said, “Congratulations on another successful recovery.”
The gin rocketed to my head until I couldn’t stop laughing. Jonah carried me to his motorcycle, crushed my bunny ears into his helmet, and drove me to my door.
“You’re a lucky bunny,” he said. “I don’t let just anyone on my bike.”
“No?” I toyed with the long fingers he’d hidden all night under that hook.
“I don’t get to ride much. When I do, it’s a treat. Time to think, wind through my hair.” He flipped the ends of his pirate’s wig.
“I like your hair.” I nuzzled my face in his villainous curls.
“I like your tail.” He squeezed the puff still tied to his belt.
Two weeks later, when I was already enchanted, he told me about his daughter. I said, “I love little girls.”
Turns out I did love Bettina. It was easy in the beginning when painted stars and a willingness to make believe was all I needed. But trouble always arrives. By then Jonah and I had been married almost three years and only once in all that time had the Real Mother made contact. Christmas morning and the woman on the other end of the phone was slurring and sobbing so Bettina didn’t even know what she was saying. Jonah’s face tensed like I’d never seen, like he wanted to snatch the phone away and slam it down in permanent disconnection.
After hanging up, Bettina simply said, “That was my mom. She misses me.” Then she went back to the chemistry set she’d just opened. Jonah worked at the hospital, analyzing blood and urine under a microscope, a job he loved, and his gift card explained that one day Bettina too could save lives. But she only wanted to dust for Santa’s fingerprints, suspicious already that he didn’t exist.
Jonah was afraid she’d come back. The Real Mother was an alcoholic who drifted from town to town, a one-night stand that Jonah regretted right away, then tried to work into a relationship when she sought him again, plump with his child. After the birth, she went for a long-denied drink and didn’t return.
I’d always known only Jonah and Bettina, as if she’d broken off from his body entirely formed. Sometimes I watched them dance to the Spinners on the radio—I’ll be working my way back to you, babe—and I saw how he looked at her, like she was sunshine, a natural blessing. Then Bettina waved me over, pulling my hand, making me dance even though it was awkward with three.
The three of us. We went on outings, chased squirrels in the park, strung beads on silly necklaces that Jonah made his co-workers wear, baked cookies for breakfast, and slept some hot nights outside under the stars, our girl folded like a wing between us.
Then, when Bettina was ten, well after she’d stopped sleeping between us, her mother moved back to town. Clean and sober and staying in a small apartment just across the river. She told Jonah she was in rehab and ready to retrieve the broken pieces. Bettina was so whole, a strong, healthy girl.
Jonah decided, after much fretting, that she had a right to know her mother, that short Saturday visits would be okay. Still, we couldn’t enjoy those rare hours alone.
After a few months, we began to relax. Bettina had fun with her “new mom.” They played old games like Mystery Date and Yahtzee and went to PG movies. They almost always ate at Bettina’s favorite pizza place where once Jonah and I spied on them from the parking lot. Did two people ever look more like mother and daughter? Straight silvery-blond hair, long noses, the way their heads tipped back as they laughed.
I asked Jonah that night about us having a baby. I wanted someone who would stun me with love, who would tuck her hair behind her ear exactly like me and echo Jonah’s serious words. I wanted someone to conspire with over pizza. Bettina never wanted to go there with us anymore, holding that place now as sacred. I felt, perhaps prematurely, that she was lost. Jonah stroked my hair and said, “She’s our baby. She’s still ours.” But the next week our baby called me a bitch.
She hadn’t cleaned her plate from dinner so I told her no television. We’d done this a hundred times before where she’d just sigh over her own forgetfulness then go to her room to draw or build shoebox apartments for her stuffed toys. This time she held the remote in one hand and said, “You’re such a bitch.”
I wasn’t sure I heard right and, like a fool, stuttered, “What? What did you say?”
Now Bettina looked surprised and afraid, but she held her ground. “I said you’re a bitch.” Her bottom lip shook.
I wasn’t angry, not even hurt yet, just shocked. “But why? Why would you think that?”
She shrugged, pulling herself into a knot in the armchair. She sobbed. I did what I always had, circled her body with my arms and pulled her in close. And I heard her through a garble of snot and tears say she didn’t know why she said that and would I not tell her dad, please?
I didn’t tell her dad, but later I lay awake, trying to remember if she’d said she was sorry. I wished for stars on my ceiling, the gentle fade as they surrendered their light.
Bettina came back one Saturday, wet from the rain and smelling of alcohol, something cheap and sweet. Not on her breath, but on her clothes, her skin.
Jonah leaned in at my urging and inhaled. “Bettina,” he said as calmly as he could. “Why do you smell funny?”
She shrugged. “I smell like me. And I told you before. I want to be called Tina.”
“Bettina,” I said firmly. “You smell like liquor. Have you been drinking liquor?”
She looked horrified and furious all at once. She said that I only thought bad things about her and her mom. “I hate you!”
“Answer the question!” Jonah’s voice rose in rare fury.
“Yes!” our girl shouted, adding that she got drunk all the time, “wasted, totally smashed.”
We were stunned into short, hot silence. She was ten years old. She was saying “wasted” and “smashed.” She was saying “I hate you” with more fervor than she’d ever said “I love you.”
I watched all this register in Jonah’s face, a storm eclipsing the sunshine Bettina radiated even in anger. His jaw flexed, his eyes sought to pierce through her to the truth. She’d never come home drunk, only giddy from a good time, but she’d never spoken like this before either.
Jonah snatched his jacket from the closet. “I’m going to talk to her.”
“Just call, Jonah. It’s late, it’s raining. Or better yet, we’ll talk to her next weekend.”
“There won’t be a next weekend if this shit keeps up.”
Bettina’s eyes widened a moment before tearing over. He never swore, he never threatened to take anything away from her. I saw how scared he was.
“You can’t call?”
He looked at his daughter, then to me. The message registered. He didn’t want her to hear his venom. “I won’t be gone long. Love you both.” He tried to reach out and ruffle Bettina’s hair, but she pulled away and ran to her room. “Just let her be,” he advised before reaching for his motorcycle helmet and dipping into the wet night.
Once, when I told Bettina that her dad and I met at a costume party, she asked in all sincerity, “Who was the bunny and who was the pirate?” She wouldn’t accept that Jonah wasn’t the cuddly one. Then she said, “I want to go to a dress-up party too.”
“No, princess,” I said. “You can’t go to a costume ball.”
“Because we don’t want you to ever be anyone but your own sweet self.” Then I tickled her to hear her shrieks.
Jonah wasn’t back before I put Bettina to bed. By the time I tucked the sheets up to her chin and pressed a kiss to her forehead, she was our girl once more, asking timidly, “Will I be able to see my mom again?”
“Of course,” I chirped. “We’ll work it out.”
“It was only vanilla.”
“What do you mean?”
“Vanilla from my mom’s cupboard. I put it on as perfume. I didn’t think it would smell so bad.” She sniffled, new tears streaming down her pink cheeks, and I had to smile.
“Vanilla? You should have told us.” I winced to imagine Jonah’s accusations.
“I know.” She sniffled. “Your vanilla lotion always smells so good.”
I hugged her close so she could catch the last traces of it. “It’s perfumed,” I said. “It’s not the same as the stuff that goes in cakes.”
“I know that now.” She blinked and I laughed, turning the dimmer so her stars could emerge.
It was well after midnight when I heard someone on the porch. I turned on the light, opened the door, and felt my blood sink to my feet to see two police officers. I wanted to believe he’d hit her and was hunched in a concrete cell, head in his hands. But that wasn’t Jonah and never could be.
It was a scene from a movie, my swoon and collapse. No more expected than the careless turn on a wet street, the truck whose worthless brakes would squeal through me many nights. One of the officers helped me to the couch, the other asked if there was anyone he should call. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d want. Except Jonah.
After the officers left, I went in to look at her. I leaned in close and her heat radiated up. And then it was too much, this breath hot and alive, so I went to the porch where the sky was a flat silver mist and cold. Unbelievably cold.
At the funeral, I saw how people looked at us, me and Bettina wearing our costumes of plain black dresses and stunned white faces. I saw the pity like a tidal wave always just hovering over our heads, the silent questions—Who would take care of the little girl? Where is her mother? And the questions offended me. I would. She was our girl.
We ate sympathy casseroles until our stomachs cramped, we wept in each other’s arms, but we rarely spoke. Words felt ridiculous in my mouth, pieces of fluff. Then, only one week after miming our way through pain, Bettina asked, “Am I going to my mother’s today?”
The sun bled through our curtains, beaming a line of light between us on the table. My fingers crept inevitably to the light, then my hand. The beam glanced off my ring onto a wall, splattering a radiant stain. I wanted to scream, Are you fucking insane? But she was ten. And I was still sick with the impotence of words. I said, “No.”
“Next week?” She leaned forward on the table, her eyes bright with tears. The way she crouched there looked so much like Jonah when he worried over money. Strange how she mimicked her mother’s laugh but her father’s anxiety. I wondered if she took anything from me or if genetics always triumphed.
“I don’t know, Bettina.”
“I just don’t know.”
I heard her on the phone later, low urgent whispers and sobs she couldn’t stifle. No, Cinderella, you can’t go to the ball.
The next week we returned—she to school and me to work, and I had to leave the bank twice to pick her up because she couldn’t stop crying in class. The first time I took her for a Dairy Queen sundae and she threw up hot fudge all over the car. The second time I took her home to bed and gave her ice cubes to nibble and press to her puffy eyes. I went to the living room, curled up on the couch where we all once sat together, and sucked on a cube myself.
I decided then, hearing the horrible cries, that I not only hated words but all human sounds. I wanted to live in a world of perfect silence. Like Jonah. At the bank, my manager moved me upstairs to sort checks in a blank cubicle. I could hear only the hum of the air-conditioning system. I was grateful and so were my co-workers. Before I appeared, I could hear them joking. Sometimes I’d stand, hidden in the stairwell or around a corner, and listen to the music of their laughter.
On Saturday, two weeks after I lost him, I sorted his clothes for the Goodwill. My sister, who’d never met Jonah, said I should, that too many people clung to the things themselves. Pulling out his dress shirts, I understood why. They smelled like him, as though any minute he’d walk in from the shower and pluck it from my hand with a “hey, thanks” and a smile. Instead, Bettina came through the door, picking up a corduroy jacket I’d never seen him wear, then putting it on backwards like an art smock or a straitjacket. She posed in the mirror. She put it on right, and then she began to cry.
“I want him to come back,” she said, her shoulders shaking so the jacket seemed to dance.
“Show me his pirate outfit, what he wore to meet you.”
“I can’t,” I said. “It was a rental.”
“Then show me something he had with him that first day,” she insisted, spinning around the room to pluck things from the dresser. Her tears were storms starting and ending with alarming speed. “What about this?”
“Your dad’s pocket watch. It was his dad’s.”
“Did he have it when he met you?”
“I don’t remember,” I said, my fingers fluttering helplessly.
At the party, he’d pulled the tarnished watch from his trousers at ten minutes to midnight, snapping it open with a self-confident, sexy flair. He said he was sorry, but he had to leave.
“Does somebody turn into a pumpkin?” I asked, trying to be cute, though I was certain I’d somehow lost his attention, not once expecting a babysitter’s curfew.
“Somebody might,” he replied, adding, “But if you’re leaving, I could give you a lift.”
“I have no reason to stay.”
He lifted me onto the back of his bike, Captain Hook and his half-drunk bunny trying to beat the clock.
Bettina dropped the watch in the pocket of that corduroy jacket. She moved on to study our wedding picture as if she hadn’t seen it every day for three years. “You didn’t have this the day you met,” she said, pressing her thumb over her own face. In the photo, her nose was tipped down to the bouquet of lilies and forget-me-nots clutched in my hand.
I simply nodded and watched her finger the evidence that I’d loved someone and he’d loved me back. Sitting in a pile of clothes thrown about like rags but smelling of him, I watched. I wound a tie around my wrist to keep from snatching the cotton rabbit tail from her hands.
“Is this a powder puff for makeup?” she asked, patting her nose.
“Not my dad’s then.” She tossed it back on the dresser and it slid off and behind.
Bettina began draping my necklaces over her head, somber as someone awarding medals. In that jacket and my jewels, she looked half pimp/half old-maid scholar. Eyeing herself in the mirror, she said, “I’ve got a little of both of you now, don’t I?” I couldn’t answer that or the girlish sobs that soon gurgled up.
The Real Mother called later that day. She said, without identifying herself, “I’ll pick up Tina around five?”
“There’s no one here by that name,” I said automatically.
“Okay, then. I’ll pick up Bettina.”
I had no idea who I was speaking to, I’d never heard the voice before, and I wondered for a wild, desperate moment if she was being taken away to foster care and no one had told me. When the caller mentioned Paolo’s Pizza, I knew.
“You’re her mother.”
“Of course.” She said it like that. Of course. Like it was obvious. Like she hadn’t been MIA for ninety percent of her child’s life.
I held the phone close to my mouth and whispered, “You know about Jonah?”
She was quiet, then she said that yes, she knew and she was so sorry, especially for her daughter. She said she hadn’t called last week out of respect.
“But now that it’s been two weeks, you have no more respect?” I instantly regretted the sarcasm.
“Of course not.” She choked up, then continued. “But don’t you think it’s important that we keep things how they were before? Routine is so helpful in a crisis.”
“How they were before. Sounds like a fairy tale to me. Make-believe.”
A long pause on the other end. I thought she might have set the phone down to use the toilet or get a drink. But she said softly, “Okay.” Then, “Can I take Tina for pizza?”
I’d grown so tired of my own voice that I merely nodded.
“Hello?” she echoed into the phone. “Hell-o?”
“Fine,” I said. Then she hung up and the awful sound of nothing filled my ear.
We picked up where we’d left off then, and I never asked the Real Mother whether Jonah had made it to her apartment that night or not. How quickly was I notified? Which direction was his motorcycle headed, toward or away? Did he ever learn that his daughter had only splashed herself with vanilla, that she was still our little girl and not a preteen alcoholic? These were questions I didn’t really want answered, so I let Bettina bound out to the waiting car and sat alone in the dark, imagining mother and daughter laughing, maybe crying and holding each other in some impossibly perfect bond.
I hoped, as the minutes lurched into hours, that she would really come home, then felt a spasm of surprise when she did, right on time. She slammed the door behind her, looking wildly around until she saw me curled on the sofa. And we both stared a moment, as though the other were an intruder, before I asked if she had fun and she said yes.
Then it came, what I’d feared and expected all along. One day Bettina said she wanted to move in with her mother. She sat at the kitchen table playing with her mashed potatoes, afraid to meet my eyes as she softly argued, “She is my mother.”
I said, “No. Your father would have wanted you here.”
“He’s not here.” She still wouldn’t look at me, but tears trembled over her lower lashes. Her potatoes swirled into a shallow bed, an empty lake.
“I’m here,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound so far away. “It’s best that we’re together.”
Bettina pushed her spoon down so fast that potato spattered across the table, white grainy blobs I would forget to wipe up before they hardened like scabs. “I’m going and you can’t stop me!” she screamed, running to her room while I sat there dazed, seemingly remembering those words from a long, long time ago.
She was right. I could do nothing, not when her wishes were so clear to the judge. “I want to live with my mom.” And she wept, clinging to the pale blond woman who’d birthed her. The Real Mother looked in a panic, unsure what to do. Her hand patted Bettina’s back while her eyes searched the titles of the judge’s leather books like they secreted spells that could be used against her.
Later the judge said she was sorry. “Why didn’t you legally adopt her? There would have been no question.”
But Jonah had said she was ours.
Bettina sobbed in my arms when her mother came to get her. How many tears could one child hold? She’d shed enough for us both. She’d dry up. Her suitcase and four boxes of toys and mementos, including Jonah’s pocket watch, waited by the door. She promised she’d call as much as she could. She said she loved me and I could tell she meant it.
After they drove away, I saw where she’d pressed her face to my silk blouse—a wet bloom ruining the fabric. I tucked it in the back of my closet with Jonah’s clothes.
Bettina kept her promise to call and I took her for ice cream a few times, sneaking in questions about her mother, looking for any thread I could pull to unravel them and bring her back. I spent long nights on the porch, watching the real stars prick through the night, wondering how hard I’d tried before.
“I bought a puppy,” I told her on one of those outings, half-hoping she’d want to come home with me where I’d lock the doors and never let her leave.
“Really? Mom got me a kitten. She’s black and her name’s Kim.”
I thought of the freckled spaniel locked in the bathroom, nameless, peeing on newspaper, howling with loneliness. I said, “So we both have pets.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe they should meet and be friends.”
“Maybe. Your dad never liked dogs. He thought they were too much work.”
“He loved dogs!”
“No, he didn’t. He said they were whiny and needy.”
An elderly gentleman in suspenders interrupted us. He leaned down, smiling sweetly, and said, “Your daughter’s a pretty young lady.” Bettina blushed and said her gracious thanks, but I only stared at him, strangely resentful.
“I’ve got to get home,” I said when the man walked away.
“I’ll turn into a pumpkin,” I answered. More like a jack-o’-lantern.
The weeks between dessert dates stretched and stretched. A rubber band losing all elasticity. We both knew it would snap sooner or later. Our conversations stuttered and stopped over the smallest things. Bettina would show me her green eye shadow or brag about how she could stay up past midnight. I’d say that was inappropriate for a girl her age, and she’d stare into her ice cream. A dead look, like she couldn’t see me. I wished she’d splatter her ice cream all over me. This time I wouldn’t let her run away. I would stop her and hold her and insist on happily ever after. I’d make her listen to those old stories again and again.
She stopped having time for ice cream. Always other plans, nothing she’d specify. And though over the next few years I got annual Christmas cards signed from her and her mother, she stopped returning my calls. Sometimes I slept in her old room to pick out constellations in the jumble of invented stars on her ceiling. The one that looked like a cross I called Burden Major, and its companion, a round grouping like the Pleiades’ puckered mouth, I called Burden Minor. Then I changed their names. The one that looked like a hook I called Jonah, only I couldn’t sleep then. I kept turning on the light, recharging the stars, scared now of the way they faded.
I wished on each and every star. I tried to imagine how she’d changed, whether she looked more like Jonah with each passing year. The dog, who I’d long ago named Happy, snored at my side, his hot breath stirring the hairs on my arm.
One afternoon after work, I took Happy for a walk in the city’s largest park. I had a crush on Robert, the groundskeeper who always stopped pruning the shrubs to scratch Happy’s belly and ask me about my day. Every time, I told him how management, a position I’d obsessively and unwittingly worked myself into, was too much responsibility. Every time, he answered that I seemed like someone who managed well. He meant it as a compliment.
That day I launched into a story of the new teller, a perky young elementary ed major who counted out money in a singsong voice. I imitated her, “And that’ll be FIVE, ten, FIFteen, TWENTY!” Then I saw our girl. I recognized her sunny hair, frizzier, and that lithe young body stretched now to my own height.
“Bettina!” I shouted. She didn’t turn around. She was smoking a cigarette, talking lazily to a tattooed boy with gnarled hair and something sparkling from his lip which turned out to be a diamond stud.
“Bettina?” Happy whined at the urgency in my voice and wet the sidewalk, his usual, frustrating response to stress.
The groundskeeper sensed something brewing and played with the dog. He rubbed Happy’s ears and whispered, “Atta boy.”
She turned around then, her face cross until she saw me. “Jamie?” She grinned and looked for a moment so much like the seven-year-old I’d first met that I held my arms out for her to bound into. She walked over slowly, the wary boy trailing, his lip stud winking like a bead of drool.
“I was wondering who’d call me by that goofy name. I beat up the last girl who did.” She smiled, but I couldn’t tell if she was kidding. She turned her head and exhaled a dirty cloud of smoke.
“You look—” I searched for the word, looking to Robert and the dog for help. Because I wanted to say horrible. She hadn’t bathed in a while, her clothes were shabby and too tight, her eyes bloodshot like she’d been cursed to cry from the day she left. “You look grown-up.”
Bettina laughed. “I can’t even vote yet.”
“Not that you’d want to,” growled the boy beside her. He had small, close eyes and big teeth, stained yellow from nicotine.
“This is Todd,” she said, waving her cigarette his way. Her free hand swept restlessly over her bare arm. “Todd, this is Jamie. She used to be my…she was married to Jonah when he died.”
Robert kept rubbing Happy’s head, but he sneaked a look at me. I could feel it.
“Yo,” said Todd. Pick a real prince, I wanted to cry. I knew now how the wolves disguised themselves as princes, the princes as villains with dangerous hooks.
“So how have you been?” I asked, urgent when I saw her eyes wandering through the park like she’d soon follow. Those thin fingers strummed the side of her jeans.
“How’s your cat?”
Bettina looked at me like I was crazy, then something flickered in her face. “Oh, that black cat? It ran away a couple of years ago. Is this your dog?”
I nodded dumbly, aware of how idiotic the conversation had become.
“His name’s Happy,” Robert volunteered, his fingers still rolling around the drooling dog’s ears. Bettina and her boyfriend exchanged smug smiles and I wanted to shout that I had named him with a heart full of irony. But I tried one more time.
“How’s school going for you?”
Now Bettina and the boyfriend laughed aloud, and she lit another cigarette, saying after her first drag, “The best it’s ever been. They let you stop going when you’re sixteen.”
“Who let you stop?”
“Anyone. Everyone,” she said loudly, adding, “I can do whatever I want.” She smoked faster then, nervous puffs. She flicked her butt to smolder on the grass. She strummed her fingers along the inside of her wrist then asked me for the time. “We have somewhere to be.”
“What happened to your pocket watch?”
She met my eyes, held them a long moment, and shrugged. “I’m not sure. Me and Todd really have to go now.”
“It was good seeing you,” I said, meaning it, hoping my voice would reliably convey that.
“Likewise,” she said, starting to walk away, then turning to give me a fast hug. She smelled like fruit left too long in the sun, sweet rot’s beginning, and her fingers clutched me so hard I expected dime-sized bruises.
“Bettina?” I called, but she just waved over her shoulder and she and the boyfriend shuffled across the grass, receding.
Robert and I watched them go, and he finally asked, “Relative of yours?” He tweezed the cigarette butt from the grass with his fingers and dropped it into a pop can in the garbage.
“No. I mean yes. Why did you think that?”
“The way her fingers wander all over like they’re searching for something to hang onto. It’s something you do.” He smiled shyly.
I looked down at my own fingers winding and unwinding Happy’s leash. I handed the leash to Robert and held out my hands, palms turned out like a traffic officer blindly expecting all trucks to obey.
Stop, they commanded. Just stop.