The vestibule door was unlocked. It was always unlocked, so that in bad weather the boy from Reilly's candy store could drop off the newspapers. In the left corner, he glimpsed the Times, the News, the Mirror. Maybe the footprints belonged to the newspaper boy. Maybe.
Then, pushing the door open a few inches, he saw the baby stroller. It was worn and ratty with age, strands of its wicker hood sprung and loose. Like something bought at a secondhand shop. Under a pile of covers, his head wrapped in a green scarf and a yellow wool hat, was a child.
He knew this boy with the wide, wary brown eyes. He had not seen him since the boy was six days old, another unformed infant huddled in the nursery of New York Hospital. But he had his mother's eyes, and her blond hair. That morning Grace had let him hold the boy, saying only that the boy's father, Rafael Santos of Cuernavaca, Mexico, was out running errands. She was not even seventeen that morning, his and Molly's only child. Now a child with a child. Smart, gifted, spoiled, but a child. Like ten thousand other young mothers in New York. When Delaney returned to the hospital, late the next morning, she and the baby were gone. Almost three years now. The postcards came for a while. From Key West. From Cuba. Later Grace wrote a longer letter from Mexico, telling Delaney and Molly that all three Santoses had boarded a ship to Veracruz, with stops along the way. I tried calling before we left, she wrote. Nobody was home. Molly read the letter fi rst, then slapped it against Delaney's chest. "Spoiled rotten," she said. "By you." There were a few more letters, cryptic or guarded, as if Grace was afraid of having them read by anyone else. And then the letters stopped. It was like an erasure on a charcoal drawing. Grace was there in his life, and in Molly's, but not there. He never did meet the goddamned husband.
He unlocked the inner vestibule door and wheeled the silent boy into the hall, closing doors firmly behind him. His own bedroom was to the left on the street side, the former parlor converted long ago by some forgotten inhabitant, with the former bedroom now full of chairs and couches, looking out on the back garden. Sliding oak doors separated the rooms, but the parquet fl oors stretched from front windows to rear like a dense oaken plain. He gently freed the boy from the blankets, thinking: Goddamned swaddling clothes. The boy had a lighter version of his mother's dark blond hair, and he gazed up at Delaney in silence. And then Delaney saw the letter on the boy's lap. Addressed DADDY. Sealed. He dropped it on the bed. Thinking: I'll read this later, but not in front of the boy. I don't want him to see my rage. She will explain herself, of course, but I can't stop now. He slipped off his heavy clothes and felt a chilly dampness penetrating the room. Thinking: Build a fire. He lifted the child, breathing hard on the boy's cold cheeks. Then the boy moved his arms. His face looked as if he had a toothache.
"Mamá," he said, waving a freed hand toward the door. With an accent on the second syllable. "Mamá?"
"We'll find her, boy. Don't worry."
The boy was wearing a pale blue snowsuit with a dark blue sweater underneath, and Delaney removed it and then lifted him and placed him standing beside the bed, his feet planted on the threadbare Persian rug. Carlos. His name is Carlos. A good weight. Maybe twentynine, thirty pounds. A healthy weight. Clear skin too. Small white teeth. He smelled of milk. The boy stood there, a hand on the mattress, gazing around at the strange high- ceilinged room, with its electric lights rising from the channels of old gas lamps, the dark glazed paintings on the walls, the dresser that held Delaney's clothes. The boy was looking at the two framed photographs on top of the dresser. Delaney's wife, Molly, when she was twenty-five. Grace, when she was sixteen, about the time she met Rafael Santos somewhere out in the city. Delaney thought: The boy has intelligent eyes. Yes. His mother's eyes.
Copyright © 2007 by Pete Hamill
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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