Palmistry by Robert Hambling Davis

“Someone we know commemorated her abortion with a tuna fish sandwich and a glass of sherry,” Annah told Kevin. She sipped her tea and looked at him over the café table. “Don’t think for one minute I could do that.”

Kevin knew better than to ask why. There were no accidents in Annah’s world. He stared past her face, taking it out of focus, and said, “The last thing I expected was to have another child.”

“Same here,” said Annah. “But reality doesn’t exist to meet our expectations.”

“I don’t want to live in it then,” he said and forced a laugh.

“Why must an unplanned child be unwanted?” she asked.

“What’ll we do?” said Kevin, and he put his palms down on the table and leaned toward her. “I want to discuss options,” he said, trying to sound in control.

Annah put her hand on his. “If I’m pregnant I’ll have the baby with or without you.”

He gripped her hand. “You would?”

“Yes.”

“No expectations about me?”

“No.”

“But Annah, how would you raise another child alone?”

“I’m not sure I would.”

“What do you mean?”

“Adoption is an option.”

He swallowed and stared. “Adoption.”

“Yes.”

“Giving up the baby.” His hand went limp in hers. “Isn’t that what you mean?”

“Of course, Kevin. What else would I mean?”

“When do you do it? Before or after the baby is born.”

“I would imagine after,” Annah said with a laugh.

“But do you know”

“Kevin. How can you adopt a baby that hasn’t been born?”

“I don’t know.”

“Unless you adopt the mother. And who will do that?”

“Do you know?” he said.

“I know what I’ve heard,” said Annah, “And what I saw on a PBS special.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, Kevin. Within the past year. Why?”

“Things change so fast these days.” He clutched his espresso cup and gazed off the pastry counter. “Yesterday seems like a year ago. Time has grown exponential.”

“Kevin,” she said.

“The Carter Administration,” he went on, speaking at the jar of croissants. “It seems like ancient history.”

“Kevin.” She squeezed his hand. “Kevin, what’s that have to do with adoption?”

“A lot. Even if you saw that show last week, when they were adopting babies after delivery, this week they’re adopting them while they’re still in the womb. Conditionally, of course, depending on no congenital handicaps.”

“That sounds like prenatal discrimination.”

“Okay, tell me about it. Tell me about adoption.”

As she told him what she knew, he listened with a vacant stare and imagined her at a hospital in London, where her twenty-four-year-old daughter Celeste lived and worked in a publishing house. Celeste was assisting with the delivery. She massaged Annah’s shoulders, cheering her on, while he hid his head in the sand in Ocean City, New Jersey. “Push, push!” Celeste screamed. Annah’s bloated face, the pain, the blood. Their baby whisked off to a wet nurse, to await adopters. His child, his second child he’d never see, never know.

“Annah,” he said, “it’s not an option. I couldn’t live with myself, nor with the thought of you raising our child alone.”

“That settles it then,” she said. “We will have the baby and raise it together.”

Kevin twirled his cup on its saucer, brooding to Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross” on the café’s stereo. “What will I tell my family?” he said.

“You don’t have to tell them anything. It’s none of their business.”

“But when they see you three-four month from now?”

Annah laughed. “They won’t ask. They’ll think I’m getting fat. We’ll keep them guessing.”

“But when you get so fat they can’t help but ask?”

“That’s their problem, not ours.”

Kevin nodded and smiled weakly. With her parents both dead and a half brother somewhere in Oregon, Annah hadn’t a family to contend with. “What about Celeste?” he said.

“After the initial shock she’ll be happy for me. And Meggan?How will she react?”

He flashed on his own daughter, who was twenty-five. Meggan had a degree in Information Systems from Carnegie-Mellon. She worked for Bell-Atlantic in Philadelphia and had two boyfriends, one in Long Beach, the other in Brooklyn Heights. She was determined to land a job in investment banking in Manhattan, where she claimed she would double her annual salary of $45,000. Right out of college, she made more than he did teaching eight-grade English in south Jersey. Putting her through school had wiped out his savings, and his share only covered half the expense. Thank Go his ex, Audrey, had come up with the rest. And now he was going to raise another child. Another huge expense and twenty plus years of managing another person’s life.

“After all I’ve given that kid,” he told Annah, “she’d damn well better congratulate us.”

“She’s done well for herself,” said Annah.

“She sure has,” said Kevin. “And she’ll be a handy sitter, if she doesn’t move to New York,” he added, recalling how Meggan said she loved babies and anticipated marriage and a family. When she told him this, she made a fist and pointed at the creases on the side of her hand by the knuckle of her little finger.

“See,” she said, “-two.”

“Is that how many you want?” he asked.

“Yes. I don’t want one, like me, an only child. And more than two is too many.”

“I’ll be right back,” said Annah.

While she was in the lady’s room, Kevin made a fist. One, only one crease . . . with a faint short line beside it. Too faint and short to count. Annah was two weeks late. No sense worrying till they knew for sure. He squeezed his fist tightly. He squeezed it loosely. He stared at the lines and then clapped his hand to his thigh and held it there.

How would he tell his older brother, Bryan? He’d just turned fifty-six, four years older than Kevin, and, like him, divorced long ago and never remarried. Bryan compared his twenty-year marriage to a prison term he’d served till Todd and Katy were old enough to live on their own. He never quite made it; Katy was still in high school when he and Marion split up.

Kevin saw himself saying, “It was an accident. We were using birth control.”

“Well, what are going to do?”

“She’s going to have the baby, Bryan.”

“My God, Kevin, she’s too old to have another.”

“No she isn’t.”

“How old is she?”

“Forty-three.”

“That’s too old. Is she crazy? Get an abortion. It’s not too late, is it?”

“She won’t get one, Bryan.”

So. She straps you with a baby. At your age. Don’t marry her, Kevin. Let her have it on her own, or else you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t know. I can’t do that.”

“Listen to me. Do you want the kid? Do you? Do you want another kid, now, in your fifties?”

“No.”

“Then don’t, under any circumstances, do it. Just think, you’ll be an old man by the time he gets through high school, your foot halfway in the grave when he graduates college. And think of all the money it’ll take to raise him. Why, you won’t be able to retire. Annah sure can’t be raking it in as an art therapist. Don’t get trapped.”

That’s how it would go with Bryan. And Kevin would walk away in anger and doubt.

He slouched over his half empty cup, waiting for Annah. His two double espressos would keep him stung in a haze all night. Someone turned up the stereo and the incantations of “A Love Supreme” thumped in his ear.

Kevin saw himself in the house where he grew up. He was eighteen and sitting over milk and Charlemagne at the kitchen table. Upstairs, Bryan screamed, “I’ll do it!”

That summer semester after botching high school, Kevin needed a C or better in freshman English and European History to repeal his unconditional acceptance at Rutgers and take a full load in the fall. Campus and anxiety were synonymous. Each morning on the way to class-up the low steps, under the tall white columns, down the dark halls-he tried to catch up to his flying stomach. In the classrooms his professors called him Mister Callahan, signifying his ejection from the poolroom’s womb, into a world that crushed his studied pose of a small-town hustler. The night before his finals, propped over the fat used book, he heard Bryan screaming, “I’ll do it!”

“You don’t have to,” said his father. “We’ll fight it. Just say the word.”

“No, I will, I will! I’ll do it!”

“Your father and I didn’t want to tell you till after your exams,” his mother, Martha, told Kevin the next day, after he’d taken them and after he’d tried to find out what it was Bryan had to do. “We were afraid the news would upset you.”

It was upsetting enough being kept in the dark, which might be why he barley squeaked through with his C’s.

At the wedding reception, as Bryan cut the cake amid the sizzling flashbulbs, Kevin knew those weren’t tears of joy.

“A love supreme. A love supreme. A love supreme,” chanted Coltrane.

Kevin lowered his eyes, clutched his hands in his lap, and seesawed between prayers for Annah’s overdue period and his visions of himself, age seventy-five, a spindly old man at his son’s college graduation. In the field house he and Annah watched their progeny march over the stage to claim the sheepskin. As the boy met the dean’s hand, Kevin was up screaming, “You’re the best goddamn mistake I ever made! You’re one happy accident who deserves success!” The crowd turned and glared. Annah fainted. His son turned red.

“You want another espresso, or are you ready to go?”

He blinked at her and nodded.

* * *

That night as she lay with her leg draped over his thigh, Kevin silently vowed that once they were married and before she was big with their child, he would replace his full-sized bed with twins and insist they sleep separately. Over the course of their five-year relationship, whenever they slept together at his or her place, she laughingly insisted on “a somnambular intimacy,” although he found no humor in her habit of rolling into him or flopping a limb across his body as he was dozing off. What began as post-sex cuddling had become a chronic defense of his wraith-thin slice of dreamland.

He thought of all the gifts and back rubs he’d given her, and the four times in two years he’d helped her move because the feng shui was much better at the next place than the last. He remembered the couples counseling he’d agreed to go through with that bozo who sided with Annah, and how she gave him I-told-you-so looks after each session. And all the Friday-night dinners he’d made, when she arrived a wreck at his place and had to be handled with kid gloves. Which meant cooking and washing the dishes because she wasn’t up to going out, and when she was, she rarely treated him, even though his school brats were as threatening to his mental health as her ward of loonies was to hers.

As Kevin untangled from her, he wondered how much sleep and blood circulation he’d sacrificed for their togetherness. God, was that why he had varicose veins?

But Annah, oh Annah, Annah!-she was willing to have their child without him! She would bear it alone and then give it away! . . .

He saw his three younger brothers, Sean, Mark and Darryl, siding with Bryan when they heard the news. Sean, a serious Sierra Clubber, would call him a fool and use that pet phrase, “in this day and age,” insisting Kevin would contribute nothing to the imperiled biosphere with an unwanted child, another mouth to feed, body to clothe, car on the road. Kevin was adding to the population explosion, the earth’s worst form of pollution.

Mark, the chemist, would slouch in his brown study and talk about test-tube babies, the crown of creation, the only hope for the world. “Better genes for better life forms through chemistry,” he’d add, mocking Du Pont, his former employer. He would relight his pipe and dig at Kevin obliquely, voicing his disapproval by way of the scientifically determined future, the impending utopia, and quietly gloat over how he’d presented his case. Bernard, his youngest, would eavesdrop at the door. And Darryl, Darryl the Baby, troubleshooting engineer and richest of them all, would shake his head in disbelief and insist Annah was senseless to believe there were no accidents in life, that everything had divine purpose.

“It’s from working in that hospital,” Darryl said in Kevin’s sleepless brain. “She’s been around wackos so much, she thinks like them. Oh, I like her fine, don’t get me wrong. But to leave you no options, and insist on her way and the absolute rightness of it because her karma is god-sent or some such horseshit, is ridiculous. You’re a fool if you do it, Kevin. Raising a kid at your age is crazy, especially since you didn’t plan to have one. Didn’t want one. A marriage based on such coercive tactics is doomed to fail, and the kid’ll grow up with all kinds of problems.”

Darryl had never married and could never commit to a relationship. His scorecard of women was long. Whenever someone sought commitment, Darryl split. Relationships were like changes of clothes, or buying and selling of stocks, a field at which he excelled.

All four brothers would tell Kevin not to tell the old man, who at ninety-two had had a stroke the year before. You’ll kill him with this news. That’s what they would say, but Bryan Senior would take it the way he took everything these days-with glazed eye and quiet nod. He would congratulate Kevin on his marriage, oblivious to how old he was, implying that age meant nothing; as long as you could still think straight, you could tackle life. Yes, from his wheelchair he would go on about how good a woman Martha was when she was alive, and bless the memory of her. Hi sunset vision would meld all time into one, and he’d shake Kevin’s hand and wish him the best.

Kevin saw himself walking out to his car in the nursing home lot, thinking how the old man had a better perspective than any of his sons; that the stroke had honed him to the urgency of life in the shadow of death, so that aging or being old seemed more the result of one’s failure to seize the day than of anything else.

Beside Annah he stared at the ceiling, saddened by life’s fleeting dreamlike quality that now seemed more real than any so-called reality. He rolled over, and in the first light through his window, he saw her face turn old. The flesh clung to her bones; her breath went wheezy, her hair gray.

Careful not to wake her, he got up and went to the bathroom. He washed his hands, stared at his face, saw it turn old too. Brown-spotted, gaunt, rheumy-eyed, and topped with a thin fringe of hair, oyster-white as his bedroom walls.

Back in the bedroom he watched her yawn and open her eyes.

“How’d you sleep?” she said.

“Good. How did you?”

She coughed. “My throat’s dry.”

“Want some tea?”

“That would be wonderful. Green. Don’t steep it too long.”

“I know.”

Down in the kitchen Kevin put on the kettle and got out the pot and cups. Fifty percent of men over fifty get prostate cancer. Fifty percent of them die from it. Surgery often results in impotence or sterility. With a harsh laugh he took the tea from the cupboard. He’d beat the odds. At fifty-two, with half a prostate, he’d gone and done it. He’d knocked her up.

The kettle was steaming. Kevin scaled the pot, refilled the kettle, out it back on the stove. There were his new reading glasses on the kitchen table, beneath the Tiffany shade of lamp she’d given him last Christmas. Yes, half-frame jobs he’d got instead of bifocals. He flicked on the lamp, donned the glassed, and sitting at the table, fisted his hand and pored over its creases. “Damn you Meggan,” he said. “Damn you for showing me this.” In the blur of his vision he saw his daughter with frosted hair and baggy eyes by his death bed, her face a mix of impatience and tears while withered and weak, he apologized to her. “Sorry, honey, for making you wait so long.”

The kettle was whistling. Kevin shucked the glasses and stood. He emptied the pot, spooned in the tea leaves, and filled it. He shut his eyes then, took a deep breath of the steam. Then he replaced the lid.

Annah was sitting up in bed. “Thank God it’s Saturday,” she said, as he set the tray on the nightstand. With all the attentiveness and grace he could muster, Kevin poured the tea and smiled at the thought of making love with her.

Robert Hambling Davis