A Short List of Miracles by Susan Land
In the kitchen, that Sunday morning, Henry hardly recognized this daughter, the only daughter he’d seen for almost a week. “What happened to you?” he asked, heading to the kettle. “Your hair’s all flat.”
She jumped up and twirled around. “My new look! Do you like it?”
Henry did not like it. Her naturally wild curls seemed unhappy all pinned back. The dark blue dress, down to the knees, was matronly, but maybe better than her usual flowing gothic get-ups. But maybe not. She didn’t look 15, that was for sure. Henry was suddenly reminded of Monica Lewinsky and the presidential sperm. Not an appetizing thought and not an easy one to shake. Monica and Ava looked not unalike: two pretty Jewish-doctors’ daughters who’d have to watch their weight. He finally said, “You look very respectable, Ava Segal.”
She twirled again. Then stopped and announced, “Linda took me to a Talbot’s outlet.”
“Sounds good. Tell your mother about the place.” Julie was seriously into expensive clothes and expensive therapies. At that very moment she was in the middle of a long-planned boondoggle with their strange younger daughter: ten days of intensive speech therapy in Disneyland. Lessons in making eye contact. Practice saying, “How do you do?”
Ava grinned conspiratorially. “Dad, listen, I have to tell you something. You’ll like it. It’s about Linda and Joe.”
“They’re getting married?”
She rolled her eyes. “That isn’t important.”
“The hell it isn’t, my dear.”
She rolled her eyes. “Here goes: Last night, while I was hanging out with Linda, Joe came over and he brought a movie. An Officer and a Gentleman. Linda loves Richard Gere. Richard Gere’s a Buddhist. You probably didn’t know. Linda says you’re spiritually autistic.”
“And she says I’m exquisitely spiritual."
“I thought you were a pagan.”
“That was just a phase.” Thank God. “Anyway, I don’t see why Wiccans get such a bad rap. Trees inspire awe. That’s just a fact.”
“Two plus two equals four. That’s a fact.” Henry tried to will the water to boil, which it would do when it reached 212 degrees Fahrenheit. A fact. The current year was a fact too: 2000. A good year for a wedding. A wedding between Henry’s only son and the woman he’d knocked up, who was now living in the guest suite of Henry’s house—without Joe—but with the world’s most precious baby. “Go o with your story, Ava.”
“Okay. So Linda nuked some microwave popcorn. Joe got some stuck between his teeth, Linda asked him if he wanted to get it out with dental floss, I left them alone, and Joe’s car is right where it was last night. Come see!” She hustled her father to a window in a corner and pulled aside the curtain. “Look! Linda didn’t kick him out.”
Finally! Henry looked down at the driveway and saw Joe’s dented Celica, parked by the guest suite door, windshield wipers stopped mid-wipe, sun shining on the blades. The kettle whistled. Henry pumped a fist.
This meant that Joe and Linda Nelson had been together all night. While it rained. And after it stopped raining. And after the clouds moved off. Go Joe! This meant Henry’s plan was working.
As it should. It was a good plan. Uncomplicated. Generous. Linda had threatened to move to Vermont with her baby. Henry pointed out that the baby was also Joe’s. Then Henry had calmly suggested that Linda and the baby move into the guest suite. He reminded Linda that it was almost winter, and that Vermont is colder than Maryland, and, as she knew, premature babies need extra warmth. They had, on average, less body fat than full-term babies: another fact.
Henry deliberately did not invite Joe to stay there too. Joe would keep his apartment above the creepy game shop. Linda needed to be courted. That was Henry’s genius, to know that. And Joe had come, week after week—if only to drop off boxes of diapers and share take-out dinners. Poor putz. Linda continued to claim not to love him, not to want to lead him on. Night after night, at 10 p.m., she would send him away. But not last night.
Henry plunged down the French press. Ava picked up two oranges and started to juggle them. Her eyes on the oranges, she mused, “Linda’s one-hundred-percent convinced the baby’s a miracle. What do you think?”
“I’m not a big fan of miracles. And yet—” Henry had seen Linda’s sonograms and path reports. She’d shown them to everyone while announcing the pregnancy. And if one were inclined to believing in miracles, Linda could make a good case. She had one of the nastiest cases of endometriosis Henry had ever seen. And yet, despite the jungle of tissue strangling her fallopian tubes, one of Joe’s sperm had prevailed. That was, somehow, another fact.
“Linda wants me to sing with her church choir. This morning. That’s why she got me the dress. She thinks then I’ll feel the urge to get baptized, and that would be a second miracle.”
“She’s taking you to church?” Something squirmed in Henry’s Jewish DNA.
“Yeah. This is the fourth time.”
Henry wanted to ask, “How come no one has mentioned this to me?” But he was afraid she’d accuse him of not paying her enough attention. And she’d have a point. Julie had repeatedly reminded Henry that he’d missed Ava’s big drama club debut.
So instead, he said, “You are an excellent half-aunt, Ava Segal.”
“Come on, Dad, you know Linda doesn’t want us to say ‘half.’”
“Right. She has made that clear.” But Henry seriously doubted the twins from his first marriage could ever be complete siblings of the daughters of his second marriage—as if his two wives were one wife, which they most definitely were not. The first one came from all kinds of money and left, taking all of it with her. “Ava, you are a completely excellent aunt.”
Then Henry and the excellent aunt, still juggling, watched the driveway as Joe emerged from the guest suite. Not, dammit, a triumphant sprint. Getting into the Celica, he looked as if he’d spent the night trying to comfort a fussy baby—either that, or he had slept on the nursery floor.
Henry mumbled, “He needs some better clothes.”
“Better T-shirts, that’s for sure.” Ava didn’t sound convinced. “Without dragons.”
“You know what? Joe needs a new car,” Henry announced. “I’ll get him one. That can be a second miracle.” Especially given how much Julie had been spending on Florida, and the nursery renovations, and college funds.
“That’s not exactly in the miracle department, Dad.” She let the oranges land in her hands.
“Okay. So tell me: Do you like going to church?”
Ava put the oranges back in a porcelain bowl that reflected their color like a pinkish mirror. She said, thoughtfully, “I mean, it isn’t just about being with Linda, or singing with the choir. It’s helping me.”
“I’d like to know.”
Ava took a deep breath and Henry braced himself to hear that Ava regretted not having had a bat mitzvah. He was preparing to blame the lapse on Julie’s concern for Ava’s sister, the need to keep life as simple as possible, but instead Ava erupted with: “I had stupid unprotected sex at the cast party after the play and Mom got me morning-after pills, and I’ll never know if there was a boy or a girl down there, but I need some kind of holy forgiveness and—”
The doorbell chimed and she ran off to open the door for Linda, leaving Henry to wonder all at once why the hell Ava had just told him what she’d told him—and also why the hell Linda always insisted on walking across the lawn to the front door, which was an inefficient and insulting thing to do when there was a perfectly convenient entrance from the goddamn guest suite into the kitchen.
Then Linda was coming toward Henry, and she was handing him his grandson, and Henry was making a cradle of his arms and forgetting—almost forgetting—Ava’s bombshell. The sweetness of this tiny baby awed him, his grandson’s bones, and his blood, and his organs. Henry put his fingers on the softness of the skull, the fluffy hair. He felt warmth in his heart, in a chamber that wouldn’t appear on a CT scan. Did I love my own children this much and just forget? Could I also have loved Ava’s baby?
Linda whispered, “Henry?” She pointed to a portable crib. “Nap time. It’s easier for me to leave if he’s sleeping. Please?”
Henry nodded and sighed, carefully setting down precious little Joshua. Then he stood up and studied his daughter-out-of-law, who looked nice today. So thin, runner thin, but the cut of her dress made it clear enough that she was a woman with curves. She also seemed to have put some make-up on what Julie called her plain Flemish Annunciation face.
Linda said, “We’ll be back within two hours at the most. Joshua’s just eaten, but there’re some bottles in the refrigerator in case he seems hungry. He probably won’t. The instructions for warming are taped on, but you know how to do it.”
“We’ll be fine,” Henry said.
“Or you can call Joe. Joe knows everything.”
“Hey, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“If you can’t get Joe, my phone is set on vibrate. Even during church.”
“I’ll be able to reach Joe.”
“I know. It’s true. But just in case...”
“Go!” Please, just leave me with my grandson, and now, Jesus, with Ava’s phantom zygote.
“Thank you for everything, Henry.”
His daughter-out-of-law and whole daughter finally gone, Henry poured himself more coffee and sat by the crib, where he could monitor the baby’s quiet breathing. Henry calculated: Ava’s play had been in April. Now it was March. Had she kept a baby, if there had even been a baby, the two little ones would be cousins, really half-cousins, Ava’s baby a few months older than Joe’s. But Joe’s had been a preemie, so maybe the same age. Henry couldn’t just do nothing with this information. The theoretically possible grandchild deserved at least a modicum of—what? Recognition? Contemplation? Regret?
On the night of Ava’s “stupid unprotected sex,” Henry had been at a conference in Boston listening to a scientific talk by Joe’s twin sister, an oft-cited evolutionary biologist. The talk was hard to follow. Ava’s show would have been a lot more fun. Henry thought, I might even have changed the course of Ava’s life if I had been there to applaud, to take flowers backstage.
Julie must have talked to Ava about whoever had been with her. Deflowering her, presumably. Henry didn’t want to know.
He walked over to the porcelain bowl of indeterminate color, took out an orange and put it on the cutting board that had been built into the new kitchen island. He sliced it and extracted a small flattish seed. He put it on a little glass plate, handling it as if it were an irreplaceable sample of tissue. Then he put the plate on the table and sat down in front of it. While eating the orange, he admired the way the seed was shaped, it's almost perfect bilateral symmetry. He told the seed how he missed the old linoleum countertop, with its little bits of color imbedded in layers. Like an infinite universe of specks. Then he washed his hands, and he washed the seed too. He remembered his medical school rotation in obstetrics. After abortions, the interns were forced to count all the little limbs and hearts. It was the task everyone hated the most, but there could be terrible consequences to the mother if any parts were left inside.
Thank God Julie had known how to ask for the pills, to prevent that horror show.
And thank God Joe had spent the night with Linda. Henry placed the seed in the pretty bowl. Then he took stock of the kitchen: cherry-wood cabinets, marble countertops, four fancy placemats that had reminded Julie of a Matisse still life. Everything was new. Henry could at least do something about that shit-box Joe was driving. He went to the phone. Joe answered instantly—quite a change since he’d become a father. He never used to pick up the phone. “Dad? The baby’s with you, right?”
“He is within a meter and a half of me.” So how was last night? he wanted desperately to ask. “How’s the store?” he said instead.
“Quiet. I’m going through the inventory and checking payroll.” Henry sensed Joe’s desire to impress. “Quarterly tax time. Is Ava there?”
“She’s at church with Linda.”
“Right.” Joe’s voice was matter of fact.
“You knew about the church thing?”
“Yeah. Linda’s after her soul. Extra points.”
Extra points? “Listen, Joe, I’ve been thinking about your car. I want you to have something bigger. Safer.”
“Thanks, but the Celica’s running well. I’m not—” Henry braced himself for a prideful tirade and was determined to wait it out, to say complimentary things about Joe’s commitment to the gamer store, and how proud he was that Joe was applying to the Georgetown nursing school, where Henry knew the dean. Henry wouldn’t mention the dean.
“Dad, thank you for the offer,” Joe said. “But don’t worry, my car has a state-of-the-art baby seat. Thank you for everything, though. I gotta go. Later.” End of conversation.
Not later. Now. But now Henry’s son’s son was whimpering. Then grunting. A poopy grunt. Henry picked him up and went into the laundry room. He cleaned Joshua’s little tush, humming what he could recall of Ava’s “Poop City” medley. He missed Ava’s voice. He sensed that the baby missed it, too. All diapered and redressed, they sat in the rocker, both missing the way Ava sang “Summertime,” but it wasn’t a terrible kind of missing because they were missing her together.
Too soon, a car pulled into the driveway and the baby’s little elf-eyes lit up. His little elf-arms reached out and Henry carried him back to the front hallway. Linda was beaming. “What a morning! What a glorious sound!” she effused. But Ava walked in with her eyes on the floor. For once, her mood was impossible for Henry to read, but she was not thumping a Bible, not praising the Lord. Her hair looked miserable.
“Did you have a good time?” Henry dared to ask her.
Ava said, "I sang along with the others. It was incredible.” An oddly matter-of-fact incredible.
Linda was bursting with pride. “From the first note, everyone in the sanctuary was wowed by Ava’s soprano. She’s phenomenal.”
“Mezzo soprano,” Ava snapped.
“The choir director said she was singing to the angels!”
“The choir director rules that church,” Ava said in a voice that was almost sneering. “Everyone has a crush on him. Everyone.” She gave Linda a look that had to mean: Including her.
Linda took the baby from Henry. Ava got to work scooping cream cheese in a little bowl that was used only for company. Henry could imagine Julie’s delight when he told her about Ava’s graciousness in serving. He had no idea how Julie would react if he asked her about the possible zygote.
Linda put the baby in his crib and began to peel apples for fruit salad. Henry, preparing a platter of smoked fish, glanced at the porcelain bowl with an irrational sense of companionship. Linda reported that Joe’s mother had assured him that Joshua was beyond where one would expect for a preemie, in all the gross motor skill metrics. “And he is advanced in smiling and eye contact.” And there was more: “Joe says the baby’s learning to sense where he ends and the world begins,” she said. “Joe talks to his mother a lot. She knows a lot.” Henry appreciated the positive reference to Joe, even if it including Joe’s mom.
Ava summoned everyone to the table. Linda murmured, “Time for grace. Let’s share our thanks and our wishes.” She reached her hands out to Ava and Henry. Henry reached for Ava. Then he closed his eyes, allowing himself a moment of gratitude.
Ava murmured, “I wish to blend into the choir, God. Let my voice disappear into the other voices.”
Linda whispered, “Say more.”
“I want to wear a robe that is exactly like every other singer’s robe.”
“That’s all. The music will be enough.”
Linda, not moving, said, to no one in particular, “Ava’s prayer makes me nostalgic for when praying was easy.”
“What do you mean?” Henry asked.
“When I used to pray, to conceive, I didn’t really expect to be heard. I was just going through the motions. I believed the specialists. But now, every time I talk to God, I have to think about every word.”
Henry couldn’t help her with that one. But he wanted to help her. He announced, “I’d like to get Joe a new car, Linda. I think he needs something more appropriate for a man in his position.”
Linda let go of his hand and looked at Henry, puzzled, as if to say, “A man in his position? Are you kidding me?”
Henry tried again: “How about a mini-van?”
Linda was shaking her head. “Whatever he wants. I trust him to be careful about driving the baby.”
“You’d better,” Ava said, a hard edge to her voice. “You trusted him enough to make a brand-new person.”
The new little person started crying: Henry longed to pick him up, but Linda was closest to the crib. So, he stood and hovered, his arms itching with envy. Then Joshua quieted down as suddenly as he’d gotten loud.
In the silence that followed, Linda said, “I am eternally grateful to Joe.” And she looked as simple and as sad as a little kid’s crayon drawing of someone being sad. Henry wanted to call Julie and describe the scary flatness of her face. Julie would have a word for it, an artist’s term that might make her expression less heartbreaking. Linda sat back down and reached again for Ava’s hand, but Ava yanked her hand away. Linda said, softly, “You’re just angry because you’re mourning your baby.”
“It was a theoretical microscopic zygote,” Henry pointed out. “Smaller than the tiniest orange seed. Much smaller!”
Ava sat up straighter: “Dad, the choir director asked Linda to go running with him. They made a date.”
Linda said, “It’s not a date, Henry.”
“It is so a date, Dad. And the choir director is the opposite of Joe.”
Linda said, “He’s a runner. He wants to give me pointers on my stride.”
Pointers on my stride, my ass. Henry walked across the room and suddenly kicked a cabinet, cracking the wood. A piercing ache moved up his shin. Voices around him vibrated.
Ava: “Mom’s really not going to like that.”
Linda: “I can hardly blame her.”
Henry: “Goddammit! Someone get me an ice pack!”
Ava ran to the freezer. Linda settled Henry into the rocker. She took off his shoe and sock, wrapped the ice pack in a dishtowel, and Velcro-ed the whole business around his throbbing foot. Then she ordered Ava to hand Henry the baby and Henry opened his arms. He held Joshua as close as he dared. The baby was fragile, and Henry was fragile. He wanted to cry, even as his foot began to feel somewhat better. The baby sucked his tiny fingers, and he and Henry made eye contact. The baby’s eyes were Joe’s eyes. But the rest of his face was Linda’s. Henry heard himself ask her, “Why can’t you pray to believe in a Linda-loves-Joe miracle?”
“I don’t know,” she said. There were tears in her eyes.
Ava, deflated, kissed the baby’s head as Henry rocked the chair, using his good leg for leverage. The baby slept. Linda told Henry about the church community: The gay parents. The single mothers of Asian daughters. “Now they can all be thankful for the richness of Ava’s voice,” she added.
Henry muttered, “What about the richness of Joe’s Jewish sperm?”
Both sets of female eyes glared at Henry, as if he were a reckless Democratic president. As if Joe had never slept in the nursery suite. As if Ava hadn’t done whatever-the-hell she’d done. And Henry called out from God-only-knows-where, “Maybe there are spiritual therapists at Disneyland! Linda, maybe I can be a new miracle.”
“Is he mocking me?” Linda asked Ava.
Ava said, in a voice that was the opposite of sneering, “No.”
Henry said, softly and sadly, “Ava, I wasn’t honest about your going-to-church outfit. That dress is not a good look for you. I prefer your regular clothes.”
“Hallelujah!” Ava shouted out. And she spun around and around.
But, no! Henry needed Ava to press her advantage: to itemize her hours of volunteer babysitting. To demand that Henry buy her a car the minute she got her license. To be more like her mother and less like her half-brother. To stand still for God’s sake! The spinning was giving Henry vertigo.
Linda touched his shoulder and said, “Thank you for giving me sanctuary, Henry. But we’re leaving on Tuesday. I wanted to stay long enough to thank Julie.”
No. Please, no.
Ava wobbled, and Henry was certain she was going to fall, knock over the bowl and the oranges and the seed, get sliced up by shards of porcelain. Bleed. Linda said, “I told Joe last night.” Julie would hate the blood stain on the slate tiles that Henry could almost see. But Ava righted herself in time. Thank God. And he started to hum quietly, inwardly, a prayer he had never heard, but nevertheless recognized as a prayer.
In the years to come, he would wonder if he’d somehow known, already, that Ava had found her calling. Meanwhile, in Vermont, among his hardy Methodist relatives, Joshua would grow and thrive. At his first birthday, Henry would hardly recognize him. He would recognize him even less six months after that, when Linda visited the house with Joshua, now a toddler, and the choir director, who would move to Vermont to be with them.
Joe would be grateful for a new car. It was a long drive to Vermont, and he made it once a month, year after year, religiously.
Meanwhile, Ava would study sacred music, specializing in Bach and Mendelssohn, and even before her college graduation, her mezzo soprano would be in demand all over. She would also rediscover her connection to nature, like the Wiccan she once was, and devote her secular recitals to threatened species of mammals, lizards, insects. Henry would probably never understand what she actually believed in. But he would become one of her most ardent fans, following her through all kinds of neighborhoods, to churches, synagogues, even the occasional sacred bit of forest—where her awe, and breath, and her magnificent voice, would circulate down through roots and up along tree trunks and branches, outward and beyond.
Susan Land's work has appeared in many journals, including Bellevue, Literary Review, Roanoke Review, Nimrod, and the current the Delmarva Review. She has been a Stegner Fellow and won several fellowships from New Jersey and Maryland. "A Short List of Miracles" is part of a linked collection that spans the years covered in the story. Susan teaches children in Rockville, Maryland.