"Oh, they couldn't close Hoyle's. Their French 75 is on the national register of historic treasures. Come with me, I have to go tell my daughter." Marlene clutched her friend's arm and together they left the ballroom and walked through the familiar halls to the Fifth Avenue lobby, where a table had been set up to welcome the alumnae and other supporters of the school. Behind the table were two sixteen-year-old girls, one a round-faced, pink-cheeked Chinese with small wire-frame glasses, a traditional bowl-cut hairdo, and a look of supernatural intelligence in her eyes. The other was a tall, thin, sallow girl with a punkish crew-cut and a hawk nose. Both girls were dressed in black jumpers with white collars showing.
Marlene said, "Girls, this is Maureen Shanahan, my best friend from high school. I haven't seen her in centuries and we're going to go out for a drink. Maureen, my daughter, Lucy Karp, and her friend Mary Ma."
Both girls rose and shook hands correctly. Shanahan looked at Lucy with some interest and was startled by the girl's return look, an unnaturally mature appraising gaze. Her eyes were startling, too: slightly aslant, large, and the color of Virginia tobacco. She looked nothing at all like her mother, except for the broad forehead and the heavy, straight eyebrows. It was not a girl-pretty face, but a memorable one, striking and severe, like that of a young saint rimmed with faded gold leaf on an icon.
Shanahan became aware she was staring and pulled her eyes away and started some chitchat with the two girls. Marlene was rummaging in her bag. "You'll need cab fare."
"We'll take the subway, Mom," said Lucy.
"Are you sure? It'll be late."
This was said with such a tone of forbearance, as to a dotard, that Marlene shrugged and put her wallet away. She looked around. "Where's Caitlin?"
"She had a rehearsal tonight," said Lucy. "Her folks came, though." Several people arrived to ask for directions, and Lucy turned to help them. The women retrieved their coats (a black leather trench coat for Marlene, a quilted nylon, knee-length thing, lavender with a fur collar, for Shanahan) and took their leave of the girls. The evening was chill and damp; the lamps on Fifth wore misty halos. They walked east on 91st Street.
"She's beautiful, Marlene," said Shanahan.
"Hah! According to her, she's dog food. I've given up trying, and I refuse to accept any blame at all for that haircut. She worships Laurie Anderson. Of course, I explained to her that it's one thing if you have a little round face with tiny gamine features...but does she listen? I wash my hands."
"It's a stage. Who's Caitlin?"
"Caitlin Maxwell, the other side of the triangle. The cabal. She's a ballet dancer, apparently a budding star. An exquisite creature in the bargain. I think the other two have something of a crush. Rich as God, too, the dad is some sort of Wall Street tycoon." Marlene sighed. "You know, they're terrific kids, and all -- by the way, Mary is also a little unusual, she does matrix algebra in her head, according to Lucy, not that I know what that means, but she's on full scholarship and MIT is already interested, but...sometimes I wish she would just hang out with regular kids."
"Kids have cliques. We did, if you recall."
"So I keep telling myself, and I would believe it if she was a normal kid, because as you'll also recall, I was something of a handful at that age, but Lucy is a little off the charts in a number of respects."
"So speaks every mother."
"Yeah, but in my case it happens to be true. It turns out she's a language prodigy."
"A language prodigy. Give her a dictionary and a grammar and seventy-two hours with a native speaker and she's essentially indistinguishable from someone who's spoken the language since birth. There's a whole laboratory over at Columbia P and S devoted to studying her brain."
Copyright © 2000 by Robert K. Tannenbaum
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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