Ask Again, Yes
GILLAM WAS NICE ENOUGH but lonely, Lena Teobaldo thought when she first saw it. It was the kind of place that if she were there on vacation she’d love for the first two days, and then by the third day she’d start looking forward to leaving. It didn’t seem quite real: the apple trees and maples, the shingled houses with front porches, the cornfields, the dairy, the kids playing stickball in the street as if they didn’t notice their houses were sitting on a half acre of grass. Later, she’d figure out that the kids played the games their parents had played growing up in the city. Stickball. Hopscotch. Kick the can. When a father taught a son how to throw a ball, he marched that boy to the middle of the road as if they were on a block tight with tenements, because that’s where he’d learned from his father. She’d agreed to the trip because it was something to do and if she’d stayed in Bay Ridge that Saturday, her mother would have made her bring food to Mrs. Venard, who’d never been right since her boy went missing in Vietnam.
Her cousin Karolina’s dress was hanging on the hook behind Lena’s bedroom door, altered and ready for Lena to wear in just six days’ time. She’d gotten her shoes, her veil. There was nothing more to do other
than wait, so when Francis asked if she wanted to take a little trip to check out a town he’d heard about through a guy at work, she’d said sure, it was a beautiful fall day, it would be nice to get out to the country for a few hours, she’d pack a picnic lunch. They unpacked that lunch on a bench outside the public library, and in the time it took to unwrap their sandwiches, eat them, sip all the tea from the thermos, only one person entered the library. A northbound train pulled into the station and three people got off. Across the town square was a deli, and next to it a five-and-dime with a stroller parked outside. Francis had driven them in Lena’s father’s Datsun—her brother Karol’s copy of Led Zeppelin IV stuck in the tape deck. Lena didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t have the first idea how to drive. She’d assumed she’d never have to learn.
“So? What do you think?” Francis asked later as they eased back onto the Palisades Parkway. Lena opened the window and lit a cigarette.
“Pretty,” she said. “Quiet.” She slipped off her shoes and put her feet up on the dashboard. She’d put in for two weeks of vacation time—a week before her wedding plus a week after—and that day, a Saturday, was her first day of the longest stretch of days she’d had off in three years.
“You saw the train? There’s also a bus that goes to Midtown,” he said. She thought it a random piece of information until it hit her like a kick in the shin that he wanted to live there. He hadn’t said that. He’d said only that he wanted to take a spin in the car, check out a place he’d heard of. She thought he only wanted a break from all the wedding talk. Relatives from Italy and Poland were already arriving, and her parents’ apartment was packed with food and people every hour of the day. No one from Ireland was coming but some relation of Francis’s who’d emigrated to Chicago had sent a piece of Irish china. Francis said he didn’t mind. It was the bride’s day anyway. But now she saw he had a plan in mind. It seemed so far-fetched she decided not to mention it again unless he brought it up first.
A few weeks later, the wedding over and done with, their guests long departed, Lena back at work with a new name and a new band on her finger, Francis said it was time for them to move out of her parents’ apartment. He said that everyone had to tiptoe through the narrow living room if Lena’s sister, Natusia, was in there with her books. Karol was almost always in a bad mood, probably because the newlyweds had taken over his bedroom. There was nowhere to be alone. Every moment Francis spent there, he said, he felt like he should be offering to help with something, do something. Their wedding gifts were stacked in corners and Lena’s mother was always admonishing everyone to be careful, think of the crystal. Lena thought it was nice, a half dozen people sitting down to dinner together, sometimes more, depending on who stopped by. For the first time she wondered if she’d known him well enough to marry him.
“But where?” she said.
They looked on Staten Island. They looked within Bay Ridge. They climbed walk-ups in Yorkville, Morningside Heights, the Village. They walked through houses filled with other people’s things, their photos displayed on ledges, their polyester flower arrangements. On all those visits, Lena could see the road to Gillam approaching like an exit on the freeway. They’d socked away the cash gifts they’d gotten at the wedding plus most of their salaries and had enough for a down payment.
One Saturday morning in January 1974, after he’d worked a midnight tour plus a few hours of overtime, Francis got to Bay Ridge and told Lena to get her coat, he’d found their house.
“I’m not going,” she said, looking up from her coffee with her face set like stone. Angelo Teobaldo was doing a crossword across from her. Gosia Teobaldo had just cracked two eggs onto a skillet. Standing six foot two in his patrolman’s uniform, Francis’s face burned.
“He’s your husband,” Angelo said to his daughter. A reprimand. Like she’d left her toys scattered on the carpet and forgotten to put them away.
“You keep quiet,” Gosia said, motioning for him to zip his lip. “We’re having breakfast at Hinsch’s,” she announced, extinguishing the flame under the skillet.
“Let’s just go see, Lena. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“Oh, sure,” Lena said.
An hour and twenty minutes later, Lena pressed her forehead against the glass of the passenger window and looked at the house that would be theirs. There was a brightly lettered For Sale sign outside. The hydrangea that would flower in June was just a clump of frostbitten sticks. The current owners were home, their Ford was in the driveway—so Francis kept the engine running.
“What’s that? Are they rocks?” Toward the back of the property were five huge rocks, lined up by Mother Nature hundreds of millennia ago in ascending order, the tallest maybe five feet high.
“Boulders,” Francis said. “They’re all over this area. The realtor told me the builders left some as natural dividers between the houses. They remind me of Ireland.”
Lena looked at him as if to say, So that’s why you brought me here. He’d met a realtor. His mind was made up. The houses on that street—Jefferson—and the surrounding streets—Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe—were closer together than the houses farther from town, and Francis said that was because these houses were older, built back in the 1920s when there was a tannery in town and everyone walked to work. He thought Lena would like that. There was a porch out front.
“Who will I talk to?” she asked.
“To our neighbors,” he said. “To the people you meet. You make friends faster than anyone. Besides, you’ll still be in the city every day. You’ll have the girls you work with. The bus stops right at the end of the block. You don’t even have to learn to drive if you don’t want to.” He’d be her driver, he joked.
He couldn’t explain to her that he needed the trees and the quiet as a
correction for what he saw on the job, how crossing a bridge and having that physical barrier between him and his beat felt like leaving one life and entering another. In his imagination he had it all organized: Officer Gleeson could exist there, and Francis Gleeson could exist here. In academy, some of the instructors were old-timers who claimed they’d never in their thirty-year careers so much as drawn their weapons, but after only six months Francis had drawn several times. His sergeant had just recently shot a thirty-year-old man in the chest during a standoff beside the Bruckner Expressway, and the man died on the scene. But it was a good kill, they all said, because the man was a known junkie and had been armed. Sergeant hadn’t seemed the slightest bit concerned. Francis had nodded along with the rest of them and gone out for drinks when their tour was over. But the next day, when someone had to meet with the man’s mother and the mother of his children to explain to them what had happened since they wouldn’t leave the waiting room for anything, it seemed to Francis that he was the only one who felt rattled. The man had had a mother. He’d been a father. He hadn’t always been a junkie. Standing by the coffeepot and wishing the women would go the hell home, it was as if he could see the whole rest of the man’s life—not just the moment he’d foolishly swung around while holding his little .22.
And though he told Lena none of this, only that work was fine, things were busy, she sensed the thing he wasn’t saying and looked at the house again. She imagined a bright row of flowers at the foot of the porch. They could have a guest bedroom. It was true that the bus from Gillam to Midtown Manhattan would take less time than the subway from Bay Ridge.
In April 1974, just a few weeks after they packed a rental truck and moved north to Gillam, a local physician completed an internal exam in his little office beside the movie theater and told Lena she was nine
weeks along. Her days of running for the bus were numbered, he said. Her only job now was to eat right, to keep her mind peaceful, to not spend too much time on her feet. She and Francis were walking around the house looking for a place to sow a tomato plant when she told him. He halted, baffled.
“You know how this happened, right?” she asked with her most serious expression.
“You should be sitting,” he said, dropping the plant and grabbing her by the shoulders, steering her to the patio. The previous owners had left behind two rusted wrought-iron chairs, and he was glad he hadn’t thrown them away. He stood, then sat across from her, then stood.
“Should I stay here until November?” Lena asked.
She stopped working at twenty-five weeks because her mother was driving her crazy, saying all those people rushing through the Port Authority Bus Terminal might elbow her, might knock her down. On the day she fitted the dustcover over her typewriter for the last time, the other girls threw her a party in the lunchroom, made her wear a baby’s bonnet they decorated with ribbons from the gifts.
Home all day with more free time than she’d ever had in her life, she’d only begun to get to know the elderly couple who lived in the house to the right of theirs when the woman died of bladder cancer, and her husband just two weeks later of a massive stroke. For a while, the empty house bore no sign of change and Lena began to think of it as a family member whom everyone had forgotten to tell. The wind chime they’d hung from their mailbox still tinkled. A pair of work gloves lay on top of their garbage can as if someone might come back and pull them on. Eventually, the edges of their lawn began to look craggy. Newspapers swollen with rain, bleached by the sun, made a pile at the top of their driveway. One day, since no one seemed to be doing anything about it, Lena went over and cleared them away. Every once in a while a realtor would lead a couple up the driveway, but none of it seemed to go anywhere. At some point Lena realized that she could go a whole day
without speaking or hearing a single human voice if she kept the TV turned off.
Natalie Gleeson was born in November of 1974, one month to the day after Francis and Lena’s first wedding anniversary. Lena’s mother came to stay for a week but she couldn’t leave Angelo alone any longer than that. The man couldn’t so much as boil water for tea. She said she was coming to help Lena, but she spent most of the day leaning over the bassinet and cooing, “I’m your busha, little one. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“You take the baby out every day, no matter the weather, and you walk around the neighborhood for one hour,” Gosia advised her daughter. Natalie was asleep in the pram with a wool blanket packed around her. “Look around at the trees, at the nice even sidewalks. Wave to your neighbors and think about what a lucky girl you are. What a lucky baby she is. She has a drawer full of clothes already. Francis is a good man. Repeat it to yourself again and again. Go into the shops. Tell them your name and that you just moved here. Everybody loves a new baby.”
Lena began to cry. When the bus approached, she felt a wild temptation to climb aboard behind her mother, take the baby in her arms, leave the pram on the sidewalk, and never return.
“When you were born, I used to daydream about leaving you with Mrs. Shefflin—remember Mrs. Shefflin? My idea was I’d ask her to watch you while I ran out for a carton of milk and then I’d never come back.”
“What? Really?” Lena said, her tears instantly drying. It was so unexpected she started laughing. Then she was laughing so hard she was crying again.
And then, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend 1975, Lena was nursing Natalie in the rocker upstairs when she looked out the window and saw a moving truck come to a stop outside. She’d just learned she was pregnant again, two months gone already, and her doctor had joked that
her Irish husband had almost given her Irish twins. The realtor’s sign had been removed a few weeks earlier, and now that she thought about it, she remembered Francis saying something about the house having finally sold. Lately she felt so tired it was hard to hold a thought in her head.
She rushed down the stairs and out onto the porch with Natalie tucked into the crook of her arm. “Hello!” she called out to her new neighbors, and later, when she recounted the meeting to Francis, she said she was afraid she’d said something corny and made a bad impression. Natalie was still hungry, and was sucking on her little fist.
A blond woman in a pretty eyelet sundress was walking up the driveway carrying a lamp in each hand.
“You bought the house,” Lena said. Her voice was an octave too high. “I’m Lena. We just moved here last year. Welcome! Do you need any help?”
“I’m Anne,” the new neighbor said, and Lena heard traces of a brogue. “That’s Brian, my husband.” She smiled politely. “How old’s the baby?”
“Six months,” Lena said. Finally, on the first warm day of the year, there was a new person to admire the baby, to offer a finger for Natalie to grip. She wanted to ask a thousand questions at once. Where had they moved from, how long had they been married, what made them choose Gillam, how did they meet, what kind of music did they like, what part of Ireland was Anne from, did they want to come over for a drink later, once they’d unpacked?
Anne was very beautiful, Lena noted, but there was something else about her, too. Once, at work, when Lena was passed over for a promotion, her boss Mr. Eden had said that it was no reflection of Lena’s performance, it was just that the other woman had more presence, and the promotion would mean greeting clients. Lena had no idea what he meant but she didn’t want to seem stupid, so she accepted his explanation and went back to her desk. It was her accent, maybe. Too Brooklyn. Maybe it was her habit of fixing her hair at her desk after lunch. One time she’d gotten a strand of celery caught between her molars and for
the life of her she couldn’t get it out with her tongue, so she’d jammed her finger into her mouth and coaxed it out with her fingernail. Now she wondered if presence was the thing her new neighbor had, if it was something a person had to be born with and could never be learned.
Anne glanced over her shoulder at her husband as she put her hand flat against her own stomach, and lowered her voice. “She’ll have company in a few months.”
“How wonderful!” Lena said.
Brian Stanhope, who had not yet said hello, was crossing the lawn behind them just then and heard what his wife said. He staggered as if he’d tripped on something, and instead of approaching the women as it seemed he was about to do, he turned sharply and kept unloading the truck. Lena asked Anne if she felt tired, if she’d been sick. It was all normal, she said. Every pregnancy is different. Keeping crackers by her bed might help. If she ever let herself get hungry, she’d end up feeling sick all day. Anne nodded but the advice seemed to slide right by her, and she didn’t seem to want to discuss it with Brian listening. Lena remembered that she hadn’t heeded much advice either. Every woman learns on the job.
Eventually, Brian came over to them. “I work with Francis,” he said. “Well, I used to. Until a few weeks ago I was in the Four-One.”
“You’re kidding,” Lena said. “What a coincidence!”
“Not really,” Brian said, grinning. “He’s the one who told me about the house. He didn’t say?”
Later, when Francis got home, she wanted to know why he hadn’t told her they were coming. She could have made a welcome party, had food ready. But he had told her, he insisted. He said the house sold, she said, but not that it sold to his friend.
“Well, I don’t know about friend,” Francis said.
“You work with him. You eat meals with him. You’ve known him since academy. Weren’t you partners for a while? He’s your friend,” Lena said.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said. “I forgot. He got transferred. I haven’t seen
him in a few weeks.” He pulled her to his chest. “What’s the wife like? They lost a baby, did I tell you that? A stillborn, I think. Probably going on two years ago now.”
Lena gasped and thought of Natalie’s warm belly rising and falling in her crib upstairs. “How awful.” She recalled with horror the advice she’d offered, how silently Anne had taken it.
Lena paid attention to her neighbor’s belly to see how it was growing, but she wore everything so loose—oversized nursing scrubs on workdays, and on her days off peasant blouses and skirts so long they almost skimmed the ground. Lena often watched Anne hurry to her car in the mornings, keys in hand, and felt a small flame of jealousy for the other woman’s freedom. Sometimes she’d go out to the mailbox when she saw that Anne was outside and try to approach her, to start a conversation, but most times Anne just gave Lena a light wave and went in. A few times, when she saw Anne’s car was in the driveway, she’d gone to their door and knocked but no one ever answered. Once, she stuck a note in their mailbox asking if they wanted to come to dinner some Saturday night—they could name the date—but got no reply.
Francis said maybe they’d never gotten the note. Maybe the mailman had taken it. “Can you ask Brian?” Lena asked.
“Listen,” Francis said. “Don’t worry about it. Some people don’t like to make friends so close. I can understand that, can’t you?”
“I understand completely,” Lena said, then took Natalie into her arms and went up to their bedroom to sit on the edge of the bed.
Summer came and went. Brian was outside raking their yard one Saturday when Lena spotted Francis chatting with him on the narrow strip
of grass between their driveways. Francis was laughing so hard he had to bend over a little to catch his breath. Sara was born, another healthy girl, except this time around Lena couldn’t rest when the baby rested because Natalie was there, too, unsteady on her feet and always toddling toward the stairs. Eventually a full nine months went by since the Stanhopes had moved in, and no matter how early the pregnancy had been on the day they arrived, baby Stanhope would have been in the world by then. Never had Lena detected crisis from next door, the house cloaked with the kind of sadness a lost baby would bring. One day, after arriving home from the grocery store, both babies wailing from the backseat, Lena stood at the open trunk of the car considering the dozen bags she had to get inside when she glanced up and found Anne staring at her from the end of their front porch. Lena had learned to drive but she wasn’t confident about it. The only route she’d dared so far without Francis was to the grocery store and back. She was afraid she’d done something wrong and Anne had seen.
“Hello!” Lena called over, but Anne turned her back and went inside.
When it was almost Sara’s first birthday, Lena observed that Anne’s belly appeared to be growing. She badgered Francis to ask Brian next time he saw him.
“Ah, come on,” Francis said. “They’ll tell us if they want to tell us.”
But one day it must have come up. Lena was sewing a button onto one of Francis’s shirts when he came into the kitchen to wash his hands. Without turning from the sink, he said she was right, the Stanhopes were indeed having a baby. Being a man he hadn’t gotten a single detail, but Lena knew Anne must be close to her due date when her car stayed in their driveway all day and she no longer seemed to go to work. Lena waited for the right time, the right day, and then she put Sara in the playpen, turned on the television for Natalie, folded up the old baby
swing, and trudged across the snow-dusted driveways to the Stanhopes’ front door. Anne seemed taken aback by the gesture, and though she didn’t invite Lena in, she did ask if she wouldn’t mind demonstrating how to unfold it, how to use the straps. Lena, thrilled, took off her mittens to open it on the Stanhopes’ porch, to show her how to unsnap the fabric if it needed to be washed, how to drape it around the frame and secure it. As they talked, Anne, who was wearing only a thin wool cardigan, said she was due the following week, and Lena told her what she hadn’t even told her mother yet, that she was pregnant, too. Since she estimated her own due date was about six months behind Anne’s, she figured the Stanhope baby could occupy the swing for six months—which the manufacturer had printed as the maximum age anyway—and then Anne could pass it back. They could pool what they had and try to help each other. Anne was going to stay home with the baby for a while and then decide about work. She liked working, she told Lena, as if it was a confession, and Lena, feeling an opening, told her that she understood, that being home with a baby was more difficult than it looked from the outside, more difficult than it seemed like it should be.
“If you need anything—if Brian isn’t home when the time comes—or anything at all, you know where to find me.” As she crossed back over the driveways, she thought: It was just that we got off on the wrong foot. She thought: She probably lost that baby and couldn’t face me, having two. She thought: Maybe I offended her somehow, without realizing, and now it’s all water under the bridge.
Peter was born less than a week later, nine pounds ten ounces.
“It was gruesome,” Brian said to Francis.
“As far as I know they’re all like that,” Francis said. And then: “You didn’t see . . . that time when . . . ?”
“No, no. It was nothing like this. They knew, you see, beforehand.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“Not at all. It’s fine.”
Anne held her son on her lap for the ride home from the hospital,
and when she carried him into the house, the corner of his thick blue blanket flapped in the bitter February wind. Lena had Natalie and Sara scribble “Welcome Home” drawings, then left them outside the Stanhopes’ door, weighted down with a poppy-seed loaf she’d baked that day.
The next morning, while Francis was waiting for the teakettle to boil and Lena was ladling oatmeal into bowls, the sound of the doorbell rang out. The wind had rattled the house all night long, and the morning news said it had brought down tree limbs all over the county. Francis thought the doorbell had something to do with that, someone wanting help, someone alerting them to something, a downed wire, a closed road. Instead, he opened the door to find Anne Stanhope wearing a beautiful ankle-length camel hair coat buttoned to the throat, and holding the baby swing. She was wearing bright red lipstick but there were dark circles under her eyes. “Here,” she said, holding the swing out to him.
“Is everything all right?” Lena asked over her husband’s shoulder. “Is the baby all right?”
“I can take care of my own baby,” Anne said. “And I can bake for my own husband.”
Lena went silent, wide-eyed. “Of course you can!” she said finally. “I just know it’s hard in the beginning so I thought—”
“It’s not hard at all. He’s a perfect baby. We’re fine.”
Francis found purchase inside the exchange long before Lena. “Well, thanks a lot,” he said, taking the swing and beginning to shut the door, but Lena stopped him.
“Wait a second. Just wait a second. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Keep the swing,” she said. “The baby will nap in it. Really. We’re not even using it.”
“Are you listening?” Anne said. “I don’t want it. If I need something for my son, I’m fully capable of buying it.”
“Fair enough,” Francis said, and this time closed the door. He tossed the folded swing toward the couch, where it bounced off the cushion and clattered to the floor. While Lena stood openmouthed in the middle
of the living room, a wooden spoon in her hand, he shrugged and said: “It’s him I feel sorry for. He’s a nice fella.”
“What in the world did I do to her?” Lena asked.
“Not a thing,” Francis said, already headed back into the kitchen to his tea and his newspaper. “Something’s not right.” He tapped the side of his head. “Just don’t bother with her anymore.”
Six months later, Kate was born into the swampy humidity of August. Lena always said she couldn’t nurse Kate because as soon as they were skin to skin they’d both get so sweaty she’d slip right off. She gave up after only a day or two, and when Francis was on midnights he’d come home, drop his things by the door, and give Kate her first bottle of the day. It was such a break for Lena, and it was so sweet to see father and daughter staring at each other over the bottle while she drank, that Lena wished she’d bottle-fed all three. “You’re a dote,” Francis would say to the baby when she finished, and then flip her to his shoulder for a burp.
Peter, six months ahead, was eating cereal and applesauce while Kate was naked on her belly, learning to hold the weight of her own head. Later, they’d both wonder when their brains first registered the presence of the other. Could Peter hear Kate cry when the windows of both houses were open? When he learned to stand up to the porch railing, did he ever see Kate’s sisters pulling her along the sidewalk in their Radio Flyer and wonder who she was?
For the rest of her life, when asked to recall her earliest memory, Kate would remember watching him run around the side of his house with a red ball in his hand and already knowing his name.