It all started on Tuesday night. Tom and I were having dinner when the phone rang.
Let me stop here for a minute. I want to revel in that sentence. Tom and I were having dinner. It almost sounds like this was something that happened regularly. In fact, my husband, who is a public defender, had made a career of eating peanut-butter-cheese crackers from the vending machine in the Raleigh courthouse while he went over the testimony of guys named Spit one more time. I had been teaching adult tap classes in the evenings to young women who didn't have a date after work and were trying to improve themselves. That was not to say I was never home or Tom was never home, but it was hard to make it home simultaneously, and it was nearly impossible to be home alone. Our two oldest sons, Henry and Charlie, were married and gone, but George, our youngest, was still down the hall while he went to law school. Kay, our daughter, found her way over most nights to review cases with her father. And if none of the children were here, you could count on the fact that Woodrow, our contractor, and a couple of the plaster guys who worked for him would be sitting on the back porch having some fast food in the evening. Originally, Woodrow had come to build a glassed-in porch on the house, what we called a Florida room, but halfway through the project he discovered that our foundation had shifted, and suddenly the cracks that were deep below the ground were spreading across our walls like ambitious ivy. The Florida room was abandoned in favor of the more pressing problems, and now stood as a naked frame of skinny poles on the side of our house. We had been under construction for six weeks, and I had come to think of the workmen as distant relatives who wanted to leave but had no place else to go.
But tonight the house was dark. When Tom and I called out no one answered back. Woodrow was gone and George was gone and the drop cloths were neatly folded and stacked. To further raise the odds on the rarity of this evening, I had actually bought the ingredients to make a pasta dish with olives and real tuna that I had seen in a magazine. So when I say, "Tom and I were having dinner," I mean it was hot food, and we were alone together. Tom had been so hopeful as to put on a Stan Getz record, and "Girl from Ipanema" laced the air. The whole evening was a kind of far-fetched coincidence. There was potential-for-romance written all over it.
But there was a second half to that sentence: The phone rang.
Tom answered it and for a while after hello, he said nothing. He just listened with a puzzled expression that could mean he'd been snagged either by someone who wanted to steam-clean our carpets or by a very distant cousin whose kid was in jail. Public defenders were modern-day priests in a sense: If someone had done something wrong, they were quick to call Tom and confess. Then he started to say, "Kay? Kay?" and then listened again. He said, "Honey, are you all right? Take a breath. Try to take a breath. Are you all right?"
Words to make any mother put down her fork and jump to her feet. I gestured for him to give me the phone.
"Kay?" Tom said. "Do you think you could talk to your mother? I'm going to put your mother on the phone." Tom's voice sounded frightened. He had a better sense of the terrible things that can happen in the world than most people do. "She's crying," he said, holding his hand over the mouthpiece. "I can't tell what she's saying."
"Kay?" I said. "Kay-bird?"
From the other end of the line there was a great deal of sobbing and snuffling, and immediately I felt my shoulders drop with relaxation. It was a sobbing and snuffling I knew. I can't explain how. It was as if I came equipped with the secret decoder ring that made me capable of distinguishing the intent of my daughter's cries. Even when she was a baby, I could tell from the other side of the house when she was hungry and when she needed changing and when she just wanted to be picked up and brought along for the ride. I could separate the cries of our three sons, too, but the difference was they stopped crying when they hit a certain age and Kay remained weepy by nature. Even now that she was thirty and a lawyer herself, she would find herself tearing up over an article in the newspaper or a commercial for long-distance service and have to excuse herself for a moment to go into another room and pull it together.
Excerpted from Step-Ball-Change by Jeanne Ray Copyright 2002 by Jeanne Ray. Excerpted by permission of Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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