Fiction Fiction Issue

What Happened to the Baby?

Uncle Simon was crazy about words. Really crazy

It did not take long for Annette and her crowd to tire of GNU. They cleared out, I learned afterward, on one of those Thursdays that took Simon conveniently away: there were no good-byes. When I went to see him again, he was alone. This time, and all the times that followed, I was not prodded by my mother. Her mind was on business; she trusted that Simon was still, as she put it, blooming, and I did not disabuse her. She too, she reported, was blooming like mad—importing the kachinas was no longer economical; so she had gone into producing them on her own. She’d bought up a bit more property, and had a little factory buzzing away, which made not only replicas of the dolls, but all manner of other presumably local artifacts, shawls no Indian had ever worn, moccasins no Indian had ever trod in. Many of these she had designed herself (“I do have this flair,” she reminded me), and to tell the truth, they were an improvement on the raw-looking native stuff. My father wrote often, asking when I was coming out for a visit, since from my mother’s point of view a trip to New York was out of the question: they had their hands full, the business was so demanding. I answered with commonplace undergraduate complaints—I had too many papers overdue, catching up would consume the winter break, and as for vacation later in the year, I was intending to take courses all summer long.

I was becoming an easy liar. My papers were not overdue. I was reluctant to witness my mother’s pride in turning out fakes.

The checks she continued to send (with my father’s signature over “Comptroller” in print) grew bigger and bigger. I cashed them and gave the money to Simon. He took it sadly, idly, without protest. He was unshaven and wore his sandals on bare feet. His toenails were overgrown and as thick as oyster shells. His breath was bad; he had an abscess on a molar that sometimes tormented him and sometimes receded. I begged him to see a dentist. Little by little I had begun to look after him. I tipped the grocery boy and hired the janitor to take a brush to the toilet bowl. He had given up those fruitless hours among alien lexicons; but every Thursday he put on his frayed city hat, with its faded grosgrain ribbon, and locked the door of his flat and did not return until late the next afternoon. I imagined him in a rattling train headed upstate, toward a forgotten town in the Catskills; I imagined him kneeling in the dark in damp grass alongside a small stone marker. I went so far as to conjecture what Thursday might commemorate to a mind as deluded as Simon’s: suppose it was on a Thursday that Essie had confessed her doubts about the baby; suppose it was on a Thursday that Simon first heard about the curly-haired boy from Cincinnati—then the grieving guilty mourner at the graveside might not be a father at all, but only the man Essie had gulled into marriage long ago. If he did not know which one he was, the father or the dupe, why should he not be half mad?

And what if everything Essie had confided was a fickle fable, myself (like those flies to her sugar bowl) lured into it, a partner to Simon’s delusions?

The sophomore term began. One morning on my way to class I saw, across the street, Annette and two young men. The men were dressed in gray business suits and striped ties and had conventional short haircuts. All three were carrying leather briefcases. Annette herself looked less theatrical than I remembered her, though I could not think why. She wore a silk scarf and sober shoes with sharp little heels.

“Hey, Viv,” she called. “How’s your uncle nowadays?”

Unwillingly, I crossed the street.

“Tim. John. My old roommate,” she introduced me. Close up, I noticed the absence of lipstick. “Is Simon okay? I have to tell you, he changed my life.”

“You wrecked his.”

“Well, you were right, maybe I took him too seriously. But I got something out of it. I’m in the School of Commerce now. I’ve switched to accounting, I’m a finance major.”

“Just like Katharine Cornell.”

“No, really, I have this entrepreneurial streak. I discovered it running Simon’s meetings.”

“Sure, all that green salad,” I said, and walked off.

I did not honestly believe that Annette had wrecked Simon’s life. Her defection had left him depleted, but some inner deterioration, from a source unknown to me, was gnawing at him. Perhaps age was the spoiler: he was turning into a sick old man. The tooth abscess, long neglected, had affected his heart. He suffered from repeated fits of angina and for relief swallowed handfuls of nitroglycerin. He implored me to visit more often; there were no more Thursdays away. I had come to suspect these anyhow—after so many decades, was he still looking to set his thin haunches on the hard ground of a graveyard, and in icy winter to boot? Had he acquired, instead, a once-a-week lover? One of those girlies he diddled? Or Bella, secretly restored? He had no lover now. When he put out a hand to me, he no longer attempted to feel for my breast. He hoped for comfort, he wanted to hold on to warmth. The old man’s hand that took mine was bloodlessly cold.

I loitered with him through tedious afternoons. I brought him petits fours and tins of fancy tea. While he dozed over his cup, I emptied the leaves out of their gilt canister and filled it with hundred-dollar bills: froth and foam of my mother’s fraudulent prosperity. I tried to wake him into alertness: I asked why he had stopped working on GNU.

“I haven’t stopped.”

“I don’t see you doing it—”

“I think about it. It’s in my head. But lately … well, what good does it do, you can’t beat the Esperantists. Zamenhof, that swindler, he had it all sewed up long ago, he cornered the market.” He blinked repeatedly; he had acquired a distracting twitch. “Is Lily getting on all right out there? I remember how she hated to go. You know,” he said, “your mother was always steadfast. The only one who was steadfast was my cousin Lily.”

Some weeks after this conversation I went to see Essie; it would be for the last time.

“Simon’s dead,” I told her.

“Simon? How about that.” She took this in with one of her shallow breathy sighs, and all at once blazed up into rage. “Who made the arrangements? Who! Was it you? If he’s buried there, next to Retta, I swear I’ll have him dug up and thrown out!”

“My mother took care of it. On the telephone, long distance, from Arizona. He’s over in Staten Island, my parents own some plots.”

“Lily took care of it? Well, at least that, she doesn’t know where Retta is. She thinks it was Timbuktu, what happened to the baby. I’ve told you and told you, your silly mother never knew a thing—”

The apartment had its familiar smell. I had done what I came for, and was ready to leave. But I noticed, though the mannequin still kept its place against the wall, that the sewing machine was gone.

“I got rid of it. I sold it,” she said. “I saved up, I’ve got plenty. Me, I could always make a living, no matter what. Even after the divorce. But people came in those days, it was like a condolence call. I don’t suppose anyone’s coming now.”

I said lamely, “I’m here.”

“Lily’s kid, why should I care? I mean the Esperanto people, they’re the ones who came. Because they saw I was against Simon. Some of them brought flowers, can you believe it?”

“If you were against him,” I said, “why did you go along with everything?”

“I told you why. To get even.”

“A funny way of getting even, if you did just what he wanted.”

“My God, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, just like your mother, blind as a bat. You don’t think I’d let anybody know my own husband managed to kill off my own child right in my own bed, do you?”

She was all zigzag and contradiction: she had taken revenge on Simon; she had protected him. She was both sword and shield. Was this what an improvisational temperament added up to? I was certain now that no word Essie uttered could be trusted.

She had little more to say about Simon, and little more she cared to hear. But before I left she pushed her brownish face, wrinkled as a walnut, into mine, and told me something I have never forgotten.

“Listen,” she said, “that goddamn universal language, you want to know what it is? Not that crazy Esperanto, and not Simon’s gibberish either. I’ll tell you, but only if you want to know.”

I said I did.

“Everyone uses it,” she said. “Everyone, all over the world.”

And was that it really, what Essie gave out just then in her mercurial frenzied whisper? Lie, illusion, deception, she said—was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?

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Cynthia Ozick is the author of award-winning short stories, novels, and essays. Her most recent novel is Heir to the Glimmering World, and a new collection of essays, The Din in the Head, was published in June.

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