When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside—the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO building.
“Klara, you’re quite remarkable,” Manager said, keeping her voice soft so as not to disturb Rosa and the others. “You notice and absorb so much.” She shook her head as though in wonder. Then she said: “What you must understand is that we’re a very special store. There are many children out there who would love to be able to choose you, choose Rosa, any one of you here. But it’s not possible for them. You’re beyond their reach. That’s why they come to the window, to dream about having you. But then they get sad.”
The next morning, the grid went up and it was a most splendid day. The Sun was pouring his nourishment onto the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all—that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them.
“Well, Klara. Since you appear to know so much about it. Will you please reproduce for me Josie’s walk? Will you do that for me? Right now? My daughter’s walk?”
The kitchen was especially difficult to navigate because so many of its elements would change their relationships to one another moment by moment. I now appreciated how in the store—surely out of consideration for us—Manager had carefully kept all the items, even smaller ones like the bracelets or the silver earrings box, in their correct places.
She had by now both hands on Rick’s left shoulder, resting her weight there as if trying to make him less tall and the two of them the same height. But Rick seemed not to mind her nearness—in fact he seemed to think it normal—and the idea occurred to me that perhaps, in his own way, this boy was as important to Josie as was the Mother; and that his aims and mine might in some ways be almost parallel, and that I should observe him carefully to understand how he belonged within the strange pattern of Josie’s life.
“I suppose they have a point though,” he said. “I don’t belong here. This is a meeting for lifted kids.”
“These folks surrounding her. Am I to assume they’re aliens? It almost looks like instead of a head, they have, well, a giant eyeball. I’m sorry if I have this all wrong.”
“What I really wished to ask you, Klara. The real request, the deeper one. Would you ask Josie to try and persuade Rick? She’s the one person who might change his stance. He’s very stubborn, you see, and also—I suspect this—rather afraid. And who can blame him? He knows the world out there won’t be easy. But Josie’s the one capable of getting him to see this differently. Will you speak to her?”
“Please make Josie better. Just as you did Beggar Man.”
“Don’t want to die, Mom. I don’t want that.”
“It’s okay. Okay.” The Mother’s voice was soft, at just the same level mine had been.
“I don’t want that, Mom.”
“I know. I know. It’s okay.”
He clearly wished to greet Josie with an embrace, and looked around for somewhere to put down the paper bag, but Josie stepped forward and put her arms around him, paper bag and all. As he received her embrace, his gaze wandered around the room and fell on me. Then he looked away and closed his eyes, letting his cheek rest against the top of her head. They stayed like that for a time, keeping very still, not even rocking slowly the way the Mother and Josie did sometimes during their morning farewells.
I turned the corner of the L and saw Josie there, suspended in the air. She wasn’t very high—her feet were at the height of my shoulders—but because she was leaning forward, arms outstretched, fingers spread, she seemed to be frozen in the act of falling. Little beams illuminated her from various angles, forbidding her any refuge. Her face was very like that of the real Josie, but because there was at the eyes no kind smile, the upward curve of her lips gave her an expression I’d never seen before. The face looked disappointed and afraid.
“You know, Klara. I don’t even know what this is about. But I want what’s best for Josie. Exactly the same as you. So I’m willing to grasp at any chance that comes our way.”
I turned to him with a smile and nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Then let’s try.”
“Now Rick. You said just now you’re not seeking favoritism. Then let me ask you this. If that is really the case, then why am I sitting in front of you now?”
Its body was a different shade of yellow, its dimensions a little greater—and its ability to create Pollution more than a match for the first Cootings Machine.
“You must tell me if the love between Rick and Josie is genuine, if it’s a true and lasting one. I must know this. Because if the answer is yes, then I’ll have something to bargain with, regardless of what occurred in the city. So please think carefully Rick, and tell me the truth.”
“I don’t need to think. Josie and I grew up together and we’re part of each other. And we’ve got our plan. So of course our love’s genuine and forever. And it won’t make any difference to us who’s been lifted and who hasn’t. That’s your answer, Klara, and there won’t be any other.”
But I’m remembering how delighted you were on that day Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man found each other again. You were so delighted and couldn’t help showing it. So I know just how much it matters to you that people who love one another are brought together, even after many years.
“And there was more. On this question of being lifted. She wants you to know she wouldn’t wish it any other way. If she had the power to do it again, and this time it was up to her, she says she’d do exactly what you did and you’ll always be the best mother she could have.”
The Sun was illuminating her, and the entire bed, in a ferocious half-disc of orange, and the Mother, standing closest to the bed, was having to raise her hands to her face.
“But now we’re no longer kids, we have to wish each other the best and go our different ways. It couldn’t have worked out, me going to college, trying to compete with all those lifted kids. I’ve got my own plans now, and that’s how it should be. But that was no lie, Klara. And in a funny way, it still isn’t a lie now.”
“Klara deserves better. She deserves her slow fade.”
Around the same time, a kind yardman stopped in front of me and told me there were three AFs on the South Side, and two in the Ring. If I wished, he said, he could transport me to one or the other of these areas. But I told him I was content with my special spot, and he nodded and went on his way.
When she was mid-distance, she stopped and turned, and I thought she might look back one last time at me. But she was gazing at the far distance, in the direction of the construction crane on the horizon. Then she continued to walk away.