In the summer of 1979, just when Yvette Santerre thought her children
were all safely launched and out of the house, her granddaughter came to
stay in Hermosa Beach and came down with a fever, and then a rash.
Yvette thought it might be stress: Abby was seven, and her parents were
considering divorce, and she must have sensed trouble. At bedtime she
cried from homesickness, and Yvette asked if she wanted to go home. Abby
said, "I want to go home, and I want to stay here."
The rash got worse, and Yvette's husband said they should tell Clarissa her daughter was sick. But Clarissa had gone back to Hawaii, where she had lived in Navy housing before Abby was born. She said it was the last place she had been happy, and she was staying somewhere without a telephone. So Yvette called Abby's father, up in Northern California.
"Oh, man," Henry said, when he heard.
"Was she exposed to anything?"
"I don't know," he said. "Let me talk to her."
"I think she has chicken pox."
"No, she can't have chicken pox," Henry said. Yvette imagined him on the other end, big and sandy-haired and invincible. It was one of the infuriating things about Henry: he thought he was immune to bad luck, and by extension his daughter was, too.
"Has she had it before?" Yvette asked.
"I don't think so," he said.
"Well, then, she can have chicken pox."
"Did you take her to the doctor?"
"I raised three children, Henry," she said. "I don't need a doctor to recognize chicken pox." Mrs. Ferris next door had already quarantined her own daughter from Abby. Yvette hadn't heard anything about an outbreak in Los Angeles.
"Put Abby on," Henry said.
Yvette gave the phone to the child, who held the receiver to her ear with both hands. Abby nodded, in answer to some question of her father's.
"You have to say it aloud," Yvette said. "Say yes."
"Yes," Abby said, into the phone. She turned toward the kitchen wall to have the conversation on her own.
Yvette washed Teddy's breakfast dishes and thought her husband seemed annoyed to have a sick child in the house again. It took her attention and drained her energy. She didn't want a divorce for her daughter, she wanted a time machine. There would be no Abby, without that dominating Henry, but there would be some other child -- a happier child -- and a marriage that wasn't doomed from the start. Her older daughter, Margot, had a husband who was kind and stalwart and patient: if only Clarissa had found a man like that. Yvette tried to accept that the way it had gone was God's plan.
Abby said good-bye to her father, and Yvette took the phone.
"I want you to take her to a doctor," Henry said.
"He'll want to know when she was exposed."
"Well, I don't know that," he said.
"Do you know where I can reach Clarissa?"
"Clarissa won't know."
"It's not going to be a very nice summer for Abby."
"Look," Henry said, "if she has chicken pox, it's not my fault. Kids get it sometime, right? And if she got some mystery rash at your house, it's really not my fault. Just please take her to the doctor and find out."
Copyright © 2006 by Maile Meloy
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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