Ada wears a simple cotton dress, pale yellow with tiny purple flowers. The dress is calf length; her legs below the hem are the eggshell color of a true redhead, but her arms are sunburned and peeling. She wears a blue baseball cap, a few strands of hair sticking out. She sets pretzels and chips on the kitchen table, and fills a galvanized iron tub with ice and long-neck beers.
Melody runs in and out of the house. Party night, Friday, is her favorite time of the week. She flies back and forth on the swing that hangs from the big oak, higher and higher, pumping her legs to gain altitude.
Ada checks the clock in the kitchen. Wyatt had an afternoon concert with his friends Buzz and Chick, and some of the other musicians who drop in and out of his Lawrence group. They were on the other side of Kansas City, though, and she's not sure what time he'll arrive.
She counts the people who said they'd come. Sometimes there are more than she expects. Friends drop in, and bring friends of their own, and people who said they couldn't come change their minds and turn up. Wyatt loves this. These parties are his recreation, when he's in Lawrence. Ada, too, has learned to enjoy the music and dancing, so unlike her quiet childhood, or most of her adulthood. The rambunctiousness -- Wyatt's friends on the floor howling; the uninhibited dancing and talk; the drinking -- at first frightened her, but there has never been any violence, and rarely any anger, only uninhibited glee. Wyatt somehow manages to keep matters under control, always appearing at the right moment, taking offenders outside for a talk. Some of them have never returned. She thinks of Buzz, who says, "We'll never know where he buries the bodies".
The parties are not always this way. Usually, music and dancing and loud talk are their center, but sometimes there are University people arguing about architecture, or the history of science, or something Ada knows little of. Melody, with no music to dance to, sits on Wyatt's lap and listens. She is always curious, but never speaks, only listens, and, perhaps afraid of appearing ignorant, questions her mother in private the next day, asking who Bukharin, or Prester John, is. ("Was," her mother gently begins.)
At other parties their friends talk about backpacking, who is running for city council, the World Series, favorite recipes. They argue and tell stories, sing and laugh while ice cream melts unnoticed on the table. Ada rejoices in these parties for her youngest child. But Melody likes the parties best when there is dancing. She likes to wear big skirts that flare when she spins. Dancing with her father, and her brother, and the neighbor boys, and the musicians, and Pilar. Dancing with Chick, who is strong, Chick sweating in his flannel shirt, lifting her, spinning her, sliding her back between his legs. He's taught her country dances and jitterbugging. Everyone laughs and claps. Sometimes Melody gets so excited Ada sees her run out in the back yard and spin and spin because the feeling is more than she can stand, and Ada watches her daughter from the kitchen window, watches her spinning in the yard until she falls and lies in the grass and stares up at the stars.
Ada sits on the steps, wondering what she has left undone, and regretting that Julia won't be here -- she can rarely come, but when she does, Gabriel is always happier.
The Larsons appear first. Melody helps with their horses. She eats dinner with them several nights a week. When she was six years old she asked Ada,
"Mommy, can the Larsons adopt me?"
Ada replied, "Oh, angel, I'd miss you."
This had become part of the family lore, a disorderly trove of anecdotes, most of them about the children. Hearing how her parents met was Melody's favorite bedtime story when she was little. After the girl had corrected Ada's telling of the story on two occasions, Ada made a habit of introducing one mistake, a different one each time.
"And then your father wrapped the electric blanket around me -- "
"No. It was the other way. The wool blanket first!"
"Oh, yes. The gray wool blanket and then the electric blanket. You're right. Thank you."
Melody's annoyance would change to a smile, and her mother would smile back before continuing.
What had happened to the little girl? Now the boys were coming around. Soon Melody would lose her innocence, and then she would never be able to get it back. The thing that was wrong with children, Ada thought, was that they didn't remain children. They started off helpless and perfect and innocent, and then they acquired skills, and with the skills they began to acquire autonomy -- and as they did, they acquired flaws, or the latent flaws came to the fore. They were still perfect, in a way, but they were problematic: Clover's reserve and secretiveness; Gabriel's passivity and eagerness to please, whatever the cost; Melody's impulsiveness and love of the physical. Ada worried more about her youngest than the other two, who would make no mistakes that couldn't be repaired. Melody never counted the cost, and seemed not to learn from experience.
Just then everyone seemed to arrive at the house together: a couple from the Zen Center; Gary, who lived two blocks away and had carried a mini-keg all that distance (but he was big and muscular); Pilar, Melody's friend from next door, who ran with Melody to Melody's room to listen to a new album; Dr. Martin, the ornithologist from the University, who was teaching Gabriel how to birdwatch; three graduate students; a friend from Oread Meeting.
Then people were arriving too quickly to remember them all. Wyatt drove up with Buzz and Chick and Tim. They unloaded their instruments. The weather was good, so they went upstairs to play on the balcony outside the master bedroom.
Ada was questioning one of the residents of the Zen Center, asking about Buddhist detachment. "You have to let your life and actions speak for you. How can you do that if you're trying to be detached?" The Zen student had smiled and nodded, and seemed about to agree with her, when the door opened and Ada looked up.
Clover walked in, Owen behind her. There was salt now, in the pepper of his black hair and mustache. Ada fell silent.
"Aren't you going to say hello?" he asked.
She walked to him, and took his hands in her own. "Owen, I'm so happy. You look wonderful. Will you stay for the party?"
"I was dropping Clover -- "
"You look the same."
"Still polite," he said. "I've gained fifteen pounds, my hair's going gray, and my face looks like a road map, but I can rely on you to ignore it. You look about the same, though."
"Oh, I'm afraid I've changed a great deal. What made you decide to visit?"
"I have business in Omaha, so I thought I'd surprise Mother, but she wasn't home."
"She's here. In the gazebo."
They walked out, and heard Nina's laugh. Then Nina called her son's name.
Wyatt and another man and Gabriel emerged from the house, headed toward the studio, and Ada turned, halfway to the gazebo, and didn't hear the conversation between Owen and his mother. In a moment Gabriel and his father and the man were in the studio, playing music. There were four parties going on: one in the kitchen, another in the gazebo, a third on the upstairs balcony, and the last in the studio above the garage. Ada wandered among the four groups, watching and listening, until she fetched up alone on the back porch, her feet on the steps, listening to the voices in the kitchen, the intermittent patches of singing from the balcony, the music from the studio, the laughter from the gazebo. She had no need to do, no desire to do, no thought of doing. She might sit forever, listening. Fireflies blinked, now one, now none, now two or three, then none again, the pairs and threes overlapping but never synchronized. A wind stirred the patch of tall maiden grass at the corner of the garage; the air slid across her skin. Her mind was clear of all desire and thought, clear of anything except the nearness of perfection. All the sights before her eyes might disappear at any moment. She no longer recognized the voices, only the collective message of joy. All these people she loved, her many-chambered heart.
Someone was walking toward her, across the grass. Her sweet, adored Gabriel. She smiled at him. He looked into her face and smiled back. He sat next to her and said something she didn't understand. She held up a hand. He was silent. Nothing stirred or changed but the fireflies, and the soft wind, and the voices and music. Underneath all these, silence, and calm. Between these thousand things, complete connections, and a simple mystery, easy to see, until she tried to understand it, and then it muddled.
When she remembered how to speak, she said to her son, without looking at him, "Tonight I am happier than I have ever been. I hope you feel this sometime."
She gestured outward, without speaking. Her contentment was so full now it was painful. Her heart hurt. She couldn't breathe. Her face was as raw as if it had been frostbitten, or burned.
"Mom, is something wrong?"
The vacuum in her throat unsealed itself and she gasped. "Ah," she sighed. "I wish I could give you this." This intensity in each single thing and thought, none of which referred outside themselves. This boy, her child; these voices; the wind and the grass: they exhibited themselves in their own, pure, unintelligible simplicity, beyond comprehension. The only response to such a gift, such infinite, unrequested, unimaginable beauty, must be awe and gratitude.
She took her son's hand in her own. They sat without speaking. His fingers were long and thick, his skin tan from his lifeguarding job. He was becoming a man. She looked at his face, which had become heavier and longer. It had a five o'clock shadow. Soon he would have a life of his own. He spoke, his voice deep.
"I'm sorry," she said. "What did you say?"
"Are you all right?"
The music in the studio ended, and she heard Wyatt laugh with pleasure.
A car drove past and turned into the parking lot of the nursery, its wheels on the gravel sounding like popcorn. Its engine and lights went off. A nighthawk flew over, crying. A bicyclist rode by, wheels whirring and lights dimming and brightening in synchrony with the pedalling. Someone ran water in the kitchen sink. Ada heard herself sigh again, and Gabriel did the same a moment later. Their dog Apache trotted up and flopped in the grass. The kitchen radio came on -- a gentle, nasal blues; Jimmy Reed. Melody and Pilar ran past, on either side of Ada and Gabriel, the door slamming as they reached the bottom of the steps.
"We're going to her house," Melody shouted. They vanished.
Gabriel went inside and returned with a glass of iced tea. He drank. Ada watched the dark fluid disappear from the glass into him.
The light in the studio went out. Her husband and his friend were walking toward her. Wyatt leaned and kissed the top of her head. She looked up and touched him on the hip. He went in the house, holding the door to let the dog in.
"How I love that man," she said.
"I know," her son said. "Sometimes it's funny."
"It's like watching puppies."
He finished the tea and followed his father into the house. She was alone again with her problem: how to share her feeling. This bliss was drowning her.
She went to the gazebo. Sarah, Nina, Owen, Clover, their faces dim. She took the last chair, the padded recliner.
Nina was telling the story of her recent vacation, a tour of the great galleries of Europe -- the Tate, the Prado, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Hermitage. "I liked that best," she said, "partly for the building, the old palace."
"I remember you talking about that trip," Owen said.
"Before you took it."
"It was my dream. The trip I always dreamed about."
Ada imagined the museums: what might be in them, their architecture, the streets around them, the cities, the trains she would take, her rooms, the texture of the bread at breakfast, the people, the sound of the local languages, the taste of the coffees, the length of the days and the angle of the sun in the sky, the stamps in her passport, the color and shape of the airletters on which she would mail reports of her adventures; the glow of jewels in a shop window, the sounds the cars and trucks made, the motorscooters in the street. She had no desire to go. Imagining these things was enough. She wanted never to be apart from her family, only to sit here forever. What would she do when the children had grown up and gone? Adopt, maybe. She should prepare Wyatt for the idea, sound him out, mention the good it would do. A house without a child was no house at all.
Nina was planning a visit to Owen in New York. "Ada, why don't you come? They have plenty of room. We can go shopping and see the art galleries and eat strange foreign food. It would be such great fun."
"But Owen's wife... "
"She won't mind," he said. "She's always wanted to meet you."
"Oh, but I couldn't. I have to stay and take care of the children."
"Bring them," Owen said.
They had an answer for Ada's every objection. Ada didn't want to refuse; she couldn't say that she simply didn't want to go. She wanted to stay in her house. She wanted to garden and work. The house had become a part of her. She had always loved it -- the ungainly mismatch of the upper and ground floors, the strange little nooks in the upper floors, the tongue-and-groove panelling on the third-floor walls, the enormous kitchen, the large lot surrounded by trees and an impenetrable tall hedge, the rabbits in the yard. Now she couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Her husband's house. Husband. How odd, to have had two of them, and to sit talking to the first.
"I won't be able to," she said. "I would like to see it. I wonder sometimes what it's like there."
"It's good," he said. "Very good. We live a block from the park. We have a nice place, comfortable, convenient. I like my work. Our son is turning out well. We have good friends. Clover comes and spends the summers."
A guitar and a drum sounded from the house; the conversation lapsed. A moment later Melody and Pilar ran by, returing from next door. "The dancing is starting," Ada said. "Melody always knows. Let's go in."
Melody was dancing with a girl who looked much like her: blond hair, strong round limbs, round face, prominent features, especially the cheekbones. Pilar was staring at them from the sidelines. The doors between the kitchen and the front room were open and Wyatt was seated at the grand piano, the dog lying underneath, unbothered by the sound. Buzz had plugged his acoustic guitar into an amp, and Gabriel was playing his small accordion. Chick was pounding on a tall drum.
"That's the strangest collection of instruments I've ever seen," Owen said.
Ada kicked her sandals into the corner and joined her daughter and the blond girl, holding hands and spinning around the floor in a circle.
The band started "Black Magic Woman".
"Wait," Ada said. "I want 'Blue Danube'."
Wyatt started playing; the other musicians stood by.
She led Owen to the middle of the floor. "Do you remember the Alaska cruise? The dance lessons?"
He groaned. "I haven't done this in years."
She held out her arms and waited. Finally, he shrugged and took her in the close position.
"Forward, slightly forward, step together," she said. She moved back, and almost fell.
"Sorry," he muttered. "Try again."
This time she waited for him to lead, and they glided, him forward, her back, but his right foot came too far and stubbed her toe.
"Slowly," she said.
He took off his wingtips and socks and reached for her again.
They hadn't got it right by the time Wyatt finished. Owen was sweating, and released her.
"No," she said. "I know we can do this. Again."
Wyatt started playing the piece from the beginning.
"Long left, short right, left back and together," Owen muttered. "Long right, short left, right forward and together. You're pushing the beat."
They got through the second in better style. Wyatt picked up the tempo the third time through.
"There," she said, smiling with the pleasure of the flow. "Now the turn -- here -- remember?"
They almost fell, and recovered. The turns were small at first, then larger, until they were dancing in flowing circles, and the music finally ended.
"Teach me!" Melody shouted. "Teach me to do that!" over the applause.
Ada stood aside and gestured toward Owen. He bowed to the audience, and bowed to her, and held out his hands toward her. She curtsied. They joined hands and gestured to Wyatt, who stood to take his own bow, and laughed.
"Are you having fun?" she asked Owen.
"Yes. Maybe I should move to Lawrence."
"Let's go out on the porch. It's too loud to talk in here."
They sat on the steps, where she had sat with Gabriel.
She looked at the sky. "How many stars do you think there are?" she asked.
"Too many to visit in this lifetime."
She laughed. "Yes. Too many to visit." She inspected the sky. "Did you ever try to count them when you were a child?"
"No. It never occurred to me."
"I used to. It was so cloudy in Monteverde only the brightest ones showed. Then I came here, and there were more. Then one time Wyatt took us all backpacking in the mountains in the desert, away up high, and there were -- unimaginable numbers. So many they overlapped like dots of paint, hiding each other. Clouds of them. It was like the first time I saw the ocean, a new idea of infinity. That was the kind of life I always wanted -- a wider view. Does this make sense?"
"I've had the life I dreamed of. I found someone I loved -- two of you, actually." She poked his knee with a finger. "I got an education. I took care of my father when he was dying. I have children, and they're lovely and special. Teaching is wonderful. I think I've had as much as I could ask for, so I don't want that larger -- scope? -- any more, that wider view of things? I don't want it the way I used to. Do you remember how hard I used to study?"
"I don't feel that need any more. I don't have those drives. This air -- " she took a breath -- "is enough. I'm healthy, and my family is happy." She turned to him. "I hope -- that's what I want for you. Are you happy?"
"Yes. I am."
"I think of you. I wonder how you are, how you feel, whether you're satisfied in your work, whether your wife loves you and is good to you -- What is it? Did I hurt you? Did I say something wrong?"
"No. You know how you imagine a conversation, what you'll say, and what they'll say to you?"
"I've wanted to talk. Since the divorce. Then you started saying these things."
"Owen. I want to know how you are. How could I not? All you've meant to me. I want you to be -- satisfied? Content? I want you to be whatever you want."
"Do you think you made a mistake, marrying me?"
"Yes, but what difference does it make now? Look at us. I have everything I ever wanted. You seem happy. We have a daughter who's brilliant and beautiful. How could I regret our marriage?"
She waited, then said. "No, not that. Let's not talk about that. I can't."
"Yes. But. How can you forgive that?"
"It wasn't easy. Sometimes I still don't. But mostly... not to forgive is corrosive. It eats away your health."
They were silent a few minutes.
"That's all history," she said.
"A different life?"
"Yes. I'm not interested in our lives. The children. That's what I want to know. What happens to them? What about Clover? What do you think she'll do?"
"Something with mathematics," Ada said. "She's so solitary. She needs to work alone. At a desk. And yet -- "
"So cunning," Owen said.
"Yes." Ada laughed. "Precisely. So shrewd. She'll do well, even with her unwillingness to do what other people tell her to."
"She'll find a way around them."
"She knows how to work the system, work people, for her own benefit. But she's better with abstractions than she is with other human beings," Ada said. "She doesn't like people much, really."
"What can we do with her? Where will she go to college?"
"It doesn't matter what we think," Ada said. "She'll go where she wants."
"Is she difficult when she gets to New York?"
"She makes our lives hell for a week or two."
"It's the same when she comes home," Ada said. "She's very strange to me. Sometimes I wonder how I had a daughter so different from me."
"They always seem to be. The machinery's too complicated to predict."
"Is that it?" Ada asked. "I never thought of it that way."
Owen yawned. "I'm too sleepy to drive -- "
"We have a guest room on the third floor. Stay."
"Isn't that a little awkward? What about Wyatt? I'm your ex... "
"Wyatt would say, 'I don't care. If you're sleepy, stay. Everyone else does.' "
Owen's laugh was a short, startled burst. "I'll take you up on that offer then," he said.
"Good. Bring your case up. I'll get out the linen."
She was making the bed, unfurling a flat sheet, when he entered with his bag. He went to the top of the bed and centered the sheet and flattened it. They moved from place to place, tucking the corners and sides under the mattress. She picked up another sheet and they took opposite ends. This time he centered his at the top without tucking it in, and she made up the foot of the bed. She handed him a quilt, which he refolded and set at the bottom of the mattress. He didn't intend to use it; the room was warm. She put a pillow in a case that didn't match the sheets, and tossed it to him. He set it on the bed. She went to the window and switched on an exhaust fan.
"Good night," she said, and left, to return to the conversations and music on the first floor.
The music had begun to slow, and some of the guests to depart, earlier than usual. At dawn sleepers were scattered on the sofa, on the floor, outside in the grass. Ada hadn't slept. The musicians had stopped playing about three a.m., and she'd sat at the table with Wyatt and a few others. Melody had fallen asleep in her father's lap, and his legs had gone numb. He shook her awake and sent her off to bed, Pilar following her.
"She's too big to sleep in my lap," he said. "Another milestone."
They walked a mile east and wandered through the older of the two cemeteries. A stone with an angel on top, a sculpture of a child, obelisks. Around them grass, gravestones, mausoleums, asphalt drives, trees. Traffic passing on Fifteenth street.
"I like graveyards," she said. "They're peaceful."
"The best thing is the markers and the families. The things on the stones -- 'beloved wife'," Wyatt said.
"Will you put that on mine?" Ada asked.
"If you want me to. It's true enough."
"What would you like on yours?"
" 'Who turned out the lights?' "
She laughed, and said, "Will you ever change? Ever be serious?"
"Look at this one," Wyatt said. The name on the stone was Ada.
"How odd. She was born exactly fifty years before me."
"To the day. Died in 1955."
"Do you suppose I'll die in 2005? Fifty years after her?"
"No. I'll never let you live it down if you do." He gazed at the stone. "At least you can read the date," he said. "Marble stones. There was a cemetery behind our house when I was growing up and the markers were limestone. The names and dates had washed away."
"Everything washes away eventually, doesn't it?" she said. "Nothing lasts."
"I haven't been around long enough to know, but that's how rumor has it."
"I like that idea. The comfort of knowing that everything will be replaced by something else. We'll die, and our children will go on, and after them, their children."
"Clouds come, clouds go, but there are always more."
"Exactly." She looked around. "The only thing missing here is a cortege," she said.
Wyatt shivered. "You're walking on my grave." Then, "I'm hungry. Time for breakfast."