From the bedroom at the end of the narrow hallway, his aunt called: "Is that you, Lenny?" There was no hint of a welcome in the greeting, spoken with a strong accent that betrayed her Italian roots.
"Yes, Aunt Lilly." There was no way he could simply hide the baby. He had to figure out what to do. What should he tell her?
Lilly Maldonado walked down the hall to the living room. At seventy-four, she both looked and moved like someone ten years younger than her age. Her hair, pulled back in a tight bun, was still generously sprinkled with black strands; her brown eyes were large and lively, and her short, ample body moved in quick, sure steps.
Along with Lenny's mother, her younger sister, she had emigrated to the United States from Italy shortly after World War II. A skilled seamstress, she had married a tailor from her native village in Tuscany and worked side by side with him in their tiny Upper West Side shop until his death five years ago. Now she worked out of her apartment, or went to the homes of her devoted clients, whom she charged far too little for dressmaking and alterations.
But as her customers joked among themselves, in exchange for Lilly's low prices, they were forced to lend considerable sympathetic attention to her endless stories about her troublesome nephew Lenny.
On her knees, a heap of pins beside her, her alert eyes carefully measuring as she chalked hem lengths, Lilly would sigh, then launch into her litany of complaints. "My nephew. He's always driving me crazy. Trouble from the day he was born. When he was in school: Don't ask. Arrested. Went away to a prison for kids twice. Did that straighten him out? No. Never can hold a job. Why not? My sister, his mama, God rest her, always was too easy on him. I love him, of course -- after all, he's my flesh and blood -- but he drives me crazy. How much can I put up with, him coming in at all hours? What's he living on, I ask you?"
But now, after earnest prayer to her beloved St. Francis of Assisi, Lilly Maldonado had made a decision. She had tried everything, and none of it had made a difference. Clearly nothing was going to change Lenny, and so she was going to wash her hands of him once and for all.
The light in the foyer was dim, and she was so intent on delivering her speech that she did not immediately notice the stroller behind him.
Her arms folded, her voice firm, Lilly said, "Lenny, you asked if you could stay a few nights. Well, that was three weeks ago, and I don't want you here anymore. Pack your bags and get out."
Lilly's loud, strident tone startled the already stirring infant, and the faint mewling broke into a wall.
"What?" Lilly exclaimed. Then she saw the stroller. In a quick move, she shoved her nephew aside and looked down into it. Shocked, she snapped, "What have you done now? Where did you get that baby?"
Lenny thought fast. He didn't want to leave this apartment. It was a perfect place to live, and staying with his aunt gave him the aura of respectability. He had read the note from the baby's mother, so he quickly came up with a plan.
"She's mine, Aunt Lilly. A girl I was crazy about is the mother. But she's moving to California and wants to put the baby up for adoption. I don't want to. I want to keep her."
The wall was now a demanding screech. Tiny fists flailed the air.
Lilly opened the bundle at the infant's feet. "The baby's hungry," she announced. "At least your girlfriend sent some formula." She plucked out one of the bottles and thrust it at Lenny. "Here, warm this up."
Copyright © 1998 by Mary Higgins Clark
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