Prose Header

Old Quarters

by Roberta Branca

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“I’m going to have another baby, Nana,” Cassandra said breathlessly.

The sun was shining on Ginny’s face again, and Cassandra and Isaiah were back in position next to her bed. Isaiah kicked one leg of the bed morosely. “A dumb girl,” he scowled.

“I’m sure she’ll be a very smart girl,” Cassandra reproached. “I was thinking of doing up the small study in pink.”

Ginny’s eyes blinked rapidly.

“No? You’re right. Something gender neutral. Yellow or green.”

Ginny’s eyes closed once placidly.

“I’m not wearing any dumb maternity clothes,” Natalie informed her exasperated mother. Ginny held the floor-length billowing dress helplessly in her hands. Twenty-two and rail thin from over-exercise and fad diets, Natalie regularly wore shirts that barely reached her navel and black leggings. Even with five months of baby in her belly, she looked good. Her concession to the protruding stomach was a lacy knit dress dotted with eyeholes through which her stretched-tight skin protruded.

If Natalie knew who the father of the baby was, she wasn’t talking. Ginny’s visions of womanly bonding as her daughter became a mother were dissolving quickly. Each day brought new revelations. Natalie resolutely set aside her acting ambitions and took a job as a receptionist at Gerry’s office.

Three days after starting this new life, she had tacked a schedule to the bulletin board by the phone. It covered the first two years of pregnancy and motherhood. Apparently the baby would accompany its mother to work, since like most employers the company had daycare available. Many mothers even nursed their babies during lunch hour, sitting together in a lounge inside the women’s room.

Upon returning home, the baby would be fed, bathed, and changed solely by its mother. The Baby’s bedtime would be 7 p.m., and Natalie’s would be 10 p.m. Ginny’s role would be “doting grandmother,” which meant spoiling Baby but refraining from advising Baby’s mother. Natalie’s college fund, long since reverted to its creator, now would be set up as the Baby’s college fund in hopes that Natalie would one day accept it.

Ginny now stared at this schedule for the 100th time, contemplating its implications. She knew her daughter didn’t see it as an act of hostility; it was intended to be a statement about Ginny’s style of womanhood and her own. Apparently a woman only had control over her sexuality if she was a slave to conventions of fashion and thinness. Staking out boundaries shaped relationships with other women and relationships with men were not shaped at all. Having lived through the tumult that enabled Natalie to make these choices, Ginny didn’t understand the outcome at all.

The phone was ringing. Ginny waved a hand over the console. The screen flickered to life, revealing a very concerned-looking Barney Rubble. No, that was a cartoon character. The face on the screen was Gerry’s agricultural assistant John, who everyone thought looked an awful lot like Barney Rubble.

Ginny recalled the fiber-optic ads from her childhood, in which it was claimed that phone lines would be so clear you could hear a pin drop. Phone systems these days were even clearer than that; Ginny could hear the cows breathing in the background. But she could not understand Barney Rubble at all. Something about a heart attack. Why was he telling her this?

* * *

The monitor next to Ginny’s bed changed beeps. The short, staccato beats were getting longer, more of a monotone. Katrina was back again, and was fiddling with the tubes and wires sticking out of Ginny. Ginny lowered her eyelids.

When she raised them again, Katrina was done fiddling with the tubes and Natalie stood in her place, a shimmering Krylon shawl draped dramatically over her shoulders.

“Oh, you’re awake,” Natalie was looking down at her mother while still adjusting something over Ginny’s head. “Look, Ma, I bought you one of those singing holograms. The picture changes — oh, never mind, you can’t see it from that position anyway.” She plopped dramatically into a chair, crossing one leg elegantly over the other. Ginny reflected that her daughter’s expensively-cut suit would have been the pride of Coco Chanel in the last century.

“Really, I don’t know what Cassandra’s thinking. Moving into that musty old house. Makes more sense to sell it.”

Ginny didn’t know what Cassandra was thinking either. The house was being passed to Natalie, who really didn’t make an ideal landlord.

“Do you remember my Baby Schedule?” Natalie switched subjects and vocal tones, becoming reflective as she stared out Ginny’s window. She did not look over to see the affirmative movement of Ginny’s eyelids.

“That schedule was supposed to save me you know. I always regretted what I did, and quitting acting on top of it... Taking care of the baby all on my own was supposed to put me on the ‘straight path,’ so to speak. Locking you out of the fun was supposed to goad you into a reaction, I think.”

What did you do? Ginny wanted to ask. Ironic. Forty-five years after she was done with childrearing, she had the perfect trap set. Maybe Natalie would keep talking and Ginny would find out what went on in her daughter’s little world for a change.

“I found the most adorable blue baby’s blanket in the attic.” Cassandra held it to the light for Ginny’s benefit.

Damn!! Natalie could have confessed to... to anything, and Ginny had missed it. She shot a sharp look up at the traitorous IV drip above her.

* * *

“Look what else I found, Grand-Nan.” Isaiah had another treasure. A picture in a tarnished silver frame. A picture of Ginny’s first husband Ray, holding a nasty-looking fish and grinning widely.

A breeze rippled his hair, and carried the smell of sea salt and polluted dead fish over to Ginny, who couldn’t remember where she was exactly. It was That Summer, though, that fateful summer when she was sleeping with Gerry and living with Ray and hating the tightrope she walked on.

“Hope you don’t mind cleaning a few kippers,” Ray called over to where she was reading and sunbathing. Ginny barely looked up from her book.

“Hey! I oughta get a picture of this!” Ray was indefatigable.

Ginny pulled the camera out of the bag by her side and sauntered over to the dock. Ray’s deep-sea pole still stood in its holder, which was clamped to the side of the dock. Other shoreline fishermen stood on the actual shoreline and used the sand as a holder for their pole. Ray didn’t like to get his feet wet.

Isaiah sidled up to Ginny’s bed. He leaned over and whispered in Ginny’s ear. “Know what Grand-Nan?” Ginny widened her eyes expectantly. Isaiah leaned over and blew sharply into her ear, as if blowing out the candles of a birthday cake.

“Isaiah!” Natalie’s voice was piercingly shrill.

Isaiah jumped back from the bed.

And nearly knocked Natalie over. She stood with her arms awkwardly held up in front of her, like a surgeon trying to avoid contamination of her meticulously scrubbed skin.

“Sorry, Grandma,” Isaiah said with disinterest. He tromped over to a chair on the other side of the bed and pulled the picture off the table.

“Do you think she’s hearing any of this?” Natalie asked, sounding somewhat plaintive to Ginny’s ears.

“Oh, I think so. Who knows what she thinks of us all!” Cassandra laughed, very nearly gaily. She cut herself short. “I mean, going on about coins and blankets and whatever the two of you talk about when you’re alone.” Cassandra was standing half-turned away from them, arms crossed in front of her as she examined the skyline through the window.

Natalie was filing her nails. She sighed. “You want me to do your nails for you, Mama?” Natalie asked in an uncharacteristically nurturing voice. Ginny tried to control the fluttering of her eyelids. A joyful kind of gurgle escaped her throat, but the generations of progeny seated around her could not decipher the emotion.

Natalie pulled her chair closer and picked up Ginny’s hand daintily. “Pshoo! Look at these claws! They’re dreadful!” She teased lightly. Natalie’s own hands had a fishlike feel about them, cool buttered skin barely half-gripping the parchment paper hands of her mother. Cassandra walked over to the other side of her bed, picked up Ginny’s hand, and stroked it. “You got another nail file, Mama?”

And so they worked, each woman sawing away while Isaiah flipped the picture in the air and caught it before it landed in his lap, over and over. Ginny lay complacently in the middle of the tableau, grateful for the sight of her daughter and granddaughter working in tandem for once.

Soon the pungent smell of nail polish reached her nostrils. Ginny thought she would forever associate the odor with the pleasant dream of domestic harmony unfolding in front of her. A clatter caused all three women to dart looks in Isaiah’s direction.

He had dropped the picture.

“Phuff!” His mother blew air through pursed lips and rolled her eyes toward the heavens. Natalie reached for her bag and plucked five gold dollar coins from the front pocket. “Here darling. Go get a candy bar.”

Isaiah was pressing something into her hand. The old quarter, from her bedside table. “You should keep this, Grand-Nan. I brought it for you.” He leaned close and whispered in her ear. “To remember me by.” Ginny reached with one hand to tousle his hair. All she could manage was to move a few thin wisps from one side of his forehead. He blew her a small kiss and waved back at her as he left the room.

“He’s too young to be here,” Natalie reproached.

Cassandra did not reply. She bent to pick up the photograph and restored it to its perch on the table.

Natalie looked suddenly pale.

“Where’d you find that?” she asked her daughter casually as she fanned Ginny’s fingernails dry. Ginny clutched the quarter in a fist, positive her manicure was imprinted with swirls matching the pattern of the palm of her hand.

“Do you know who it is?” Cassandra asked.

Natalie studied her mother’s hands for a moment, but did not change the rhythm of her fanning. “That’s your father,” she replied evenly.

Surreptitiously, she lifted her eyes to meet Ginny’s. The quarter was cutting into her hand. In her daughter’s indecipherable eyes, the full truth would never be more than murky possibility. Behind her eyes lay that other world, the one with all the old quarters, and Ginny wondered if she should step inside those eyes and become lost in it again. She released the coin into the soft folds of the bedcovers.

Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Branca

Home Page