I was at the baggage claim when Jim called with the unfortunate news. “Guatemala is closed,” he said, voice fluttering in two. A baby was waiting for them in La Esperanza, but the other day a trafficking ring had been exposed; the orphans, it turned out, weren’t really orphans. When I visited six months earlier—a few weeks before Jim and Sherry moved to their brand new place—they had 8 X 10s of that baby in every single room. “Unnerving,” was what I thought at the time.
“I can come another day,” I lied. Tomorrow was a drill down with corporate designed to breathe new life into our brand. The next morning I’d be on a plane back to the coast.
“Nonsense,” Jim said. “We’re dying to see you.”
I took a taxi to their house, armed with two bottles of wine. Jim gave me the shake of a corpse. I put my arms around Sherry, who held up oily hands like she was bracing for impact. Embarrassed, at a loss for what to say, I asked Sherry about her work at the hospital.
“With God, all things are possible.”
I nodded, smiled, longing for my hotel—room service, a king sized bed, a night alone in front of flipping channels.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking hair the red of tap water that had to be boiled. “It’s fine. Great. Rewarding. Sometimes, a kid goes into remission and then there are balloons.”
While they prepared the meal, I wandered around the new place — their “dream home.” The pine floors, the fireplace, the mysterious nooks, the antique settee, the bay window overlooking a soporific pond — all of it was like a home improvement fantasy come true. Most intriguing, though, were the yellow Post-It notes, which clung to almost everything: table (la mesa), door (la puerta), window (la ventana), chair (la silla). About a month ago, they’d become serious about learning the language.
“So we can . . .” Jim added, stepping into the doorway. I waited for him to complete the thought, but he just stood there, a sauce-stained spoon like a lollipop in his hand. For something to do, I downed my wine, even though a glass on an empty stomach is often enough to turn my head.
* * * * *
We sat down to poorly drained pasta in the sterile dining room. The sauce was bland and the salad limp, but I proclaimed everything just out of this world. When I bumped the table with a knee, a yellow note clinging to the light fixture twittered down to Sherry’s plate. “La luz,” she said.
“Crisantemo,” Jim sang with a sigh.
After dinner, we retired to the living room, where Jim and Sherry took a little wine at last. Like magic, the alcohol transformed them into talkers.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,” Sherry said, “if we hadn’t already been there to visit.” With teary eyes, she went on to explain how they’d stroked the baby’s fingers, pressed noses against that toothless rosy face. They fed her. Sherry even slipped her into stars and moons, pajamas she’d sewn herself.
“We have a photo album,” Jim said, eyes brightening for a moment. Neither made a move to get it.
“And if this weren’t bad enough,” Sherry said.
“Oh yes,” Jim said, rubbing his hands. “The timing of it!”
“Yesterday, just yesterday, my mother calls, and do you have any idea what she says?”
I shook my head.
“She says, get this. She says, “‘What about the babies here? Don’t they need homes?”
Jim said, “La cabrona!” He spat out, “Que se vaya a la mierda!”
Sherry looked at Jim, eyes dreamy with awe.
The wine had the opposite effect on me. As Sherry went on, enumerating the transgressions of each member of her family, my lids began to droop. Once, my head jerked. I wondered about coffee. If I were going to care at all about what they were saying, I was going to need a jolt.
When Sherry paused at last, I excused myself to the bathroom. Climbing the stairs, I discovered more of those yellow notes: railing, wall, step, landing — all the English words accompanied by their other, more musical names. My steps were already lighter. If I could just think of an escape plan, I’d be set. I wasn’t trying to be callous, but this business about children — children do or die, children as the meaning of life — I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. You had what you had was the bottom line, and that always became enough.
I thought Jim said third door on the left, so I turned the crystal knob. My jaw dropped. Before me was not a bathroom but a vast nursery covered in hundreds (maybe thousands!) of yellow notes. It was strangely beautiful — the landscape of a luminous dream. I stepped back into the hallway to listen at the stairs. Below, there were the pedestrian sounds of plates, of chairs scudding along the floor. I tiptoed back into the room to marvel at the dictionary before me: la alegría (joy); el amor (love); la tristeza (sadness); el miedo (fear). As I reached to read another, all of the yellow squares fluttered in response. When I moved again, they began to leap, to fly, to swirl around me like butterflies in a biosphere. Stunned, I fell down on the bed. The far wall cleared, revealing an enormous portrait of the child. She was propped between pillows in her stars and moons, a pair of big dark eyes trained on mine. The next thing I knew, the notes were upon me, sticking on hands and arms and legs and face. Against all reason, I was rising from the bed. Mind you, I’m not heavy — in fact, my ex-wife liked to call me
“insubstantial” — but progress was slow. Other butterflies fluttered down to assist.
Meanwhile, the wall baby watched, roseate lips curving into a smile. Years ago, my ex-nephew must have had just such a look before he tried to fly from sycamore branch to bedroom window. “Tell me,” I said when I visited the crushed up boy in the ICU. “What in the world were you thinking?”
The creamy blue ceiling was inches from my face, and I thought: I’m going to crack my head against the plaster. I’m going to fall back to the bed or floor and maybe break a limb. Jim and Sherry, hearing the crash, will come racing upstairs and there will be tears over yet another mess I’ve made.
But then — and tell me if you can believe it — the baby laughed and clapped her tiny hands. She spoke, quick and mellifluous, like she was giving lovely orders. Two final notes found me, one for the lid of either eye — cielo and abierto, or as they say in English: open sky.