She stands up in the tub, skinny legs shiny and dripping, straw-colored hair gathered in a lopsided topknot. Rows of milk teeth meet in a slight overbite that will most likely become more noticeable as she gets older.
“Sit down,” says Anthony, pushing up the loose sleeves of his ratty grey sweatshirt.
“Watch.” She points to one pale aureole on her flat chest then to the other, “Milk, milk…” then to the protruding cleft of her genitalia, “…lemonade…” finally sticking out her bum, “… around the corner fudge is made.” She throws back her head with an explosion of shrill, staccato laughter.
“Krista, sit down please.”
The laughter continues as her tiny feet stamp and splash the shallow water.
“You’re going to slip and fall,” says Anthony. “Now sit.” He’s kneeling on the tiled bathroom floor, a bar of soap in one hand and an oversized yellow sponge in the other.
“But you would catch me, wouldn’t you?” she asks.
“I’d try.” He dips the sponge in the water, soaping it up. “But let’s not leave anything to chance.”
Grasping the side of the tub, she sits. The water barely covers the tops of her thighs. Pink knobby knees protrude above the surface like slippery stones in a narrow brook. “What’s chance?”
“Sort of like an accident.”
“Uh, uh.” Her head swivels vigorously, threatening a 360-degree turn. “It means like if you take a chance.”
He hands her the lathered sponge. “Okay, wash yourself well.”
“Do my back first.”
“After you’ve done the front.”
Squeezing the sponge behind her head, a soapy river cascades over the small bumps of her spine. “My mom always does my back first.”
Anthony is sitting on the floor, leaning against the toilet. “So this time you’ll do the front first.”
“Uh, uh. Back first.” Her voice rises to a grating whine. “That’s how it’s s’posed to be done.”
Anthony presses the heels of his palms against his eyelids, summoning greenish-white circles. What was Pauline thinking, asking him to do this? Is it supposed to be some kind of test of his commitment or what?
“I’m getting cold.”
He was sure Pauline wouldn’t normally have asked him to do this, except she switched shifts as a favor to one of the other cashiers. He lives here now, so how could he say no? Even so, the way she just said, “And tonight is Krista’s bath night, okay?” He merely nodded and she was out the door, adding, “Make sure she washes her hair.”
Krista’s whining reaches a new pitch. “When my mom gets home…”
“Fine.” Anthony kneels by the tub. “Give me the sponge.”
He gently lathers overlapping circles up and down the girl’s thin back, splashing water to rinse her off. Krista laughs, “Do that again.” His protest goes unspoken as he repeats the lathering and splashing, then hands her the sponge. “You do the rest.”
Clutching the oversized sponge in both of her small hands, she tries to copy the overlapping circles against her chest and stomach. “Taking a chance is when you don’t know if something is gonna work out or not.”
“Don’t forget your legs and feet.”
Pauline had waited a couple of months into their relationship before she would let him meet Krista. He liked her from the start, a good kid, a smart kid. Obviously there’s no reason Pauline shouldn’t trust him, but he can’t help feeling a line has been crossed somewhere.
“Your mom said you have to wash your hair.”
“Could you get me started?”
He turns on the water, adjusting the temperature. “Okay, stick your head under. And don’t forget the elastic first.”
She pulls the elastic from her hair, freeing the topknot and ducks her head under the rushing water. Anthony takes the plastic shampoo bottle and squeezes a green, apple-scented glob into his palm, working it into her wet, stringy hair. “Okay, you take over now. And keep your eyes closed.” He rinses his hands in the bath water, dries them on a towel hanging over the rack and turns off the tap.
What would Pauline’s parents have to say about this? They didn’t seem to have any problem with him moving in with Pauline and Krista after nine months. The five of them even went out to dinner to celebrate. True, Mr. Corcoran’s toast to “instant families” was followed by a brief glance between Pauline and her mother, but then glasses clinked all around.
Krista hums as she works her hair into lathered shapes and slides back and forth in small jerking movements. When Anthony twigs to what is going on his face flushes from embarrassment to irritation. Pauline once confided to him: “I think it’s her way of acting out emotionally because she’s still dealing with Warren disappearing.” As an only child from a broken home, Anthony summoned up the requisite nod of empathy. What more could Pauline expect?
“Okay, that’s enough shampooing.” He turns the tap a couple of times, hoping the loud rush will let her know he means business. “I said that’s enough.” He’s not sure who he’s angrier with, Krista or Pauline.
She feels around for the tap. “I can’t see.”
Anthony guides her head under the gushing water. After turning off the water, he pulls the plug from the drain. Eddying suds leave a stubborn ring of foam. He grabs the fluffy green towel on the rack and wraps it around her shoulders.
“The other one too,” says Krista.
“I beg your pardon?”
Anthony gives her the matching smaller towel. She quickly dries her face and wraps the towel turban-style around her dripping hair.
“Very stylish,” he says.
Anthony helps her out of the tub and onto the mat. “Hurry up and dry off before you get cold. I’ll go get your pajamas.” He strides out of the bathroom and hears her calling out: “I want the yellow ones. Please!”
On the way to her room he stops at the glass doors that lead onto the balcony. Outside the blunt angles of buildings are softened by the first shadings of dusk. Some windows across the way already have their lights on. He lingers a moment, tapping a fingernail against the plastic dimmer switch, until Krista calls out once more. As far as he’s concerned the darkness can’t get here fast enough.
It’s a few minutes after 10:30 when Pauline carries two glasses of white wine onto the balcony. “I just looked in on her.”
Anthony is standing at a corner of the railing, an ashtray in one hand. From the other a cigarette points upward like a sixth finger checking for any sign of wind. A thin contour of smoke rises into the stillness.
Pauline places both glasses on the circular patio table and sits in one of two folding chairs. “She’s fast asleep.” Out of the corner of her eye Pauline watches Anthony exhaling ghostly halos through extended lips. “She usually waits up until I get home,” says Pauline, taking a sip of wine. “I guess I was later than I thought I’d be.” One by one the smoke rings fade into shapeless wisps and disappear.
“I ended up reading her two books,” says Anthony. He puffs away and Pauline studies the glowing red tip inching its way along his cigarette.
“You can sit down and do that,” she says. “It won’t bother me.”
He takes two more deep drags, crushes the butt in the ashtray, then sits in the other chair and gulps down some wine.
“You know, it’s okay to enjoy your cigarette with your wine.”
“It’s not going to help me cut back if I start enjoying them with a drink,” he says.
Pauline looks up at a patch of night sky dotted with stars, a small reminder of the summers her family used to spend at their cottage in Ganonoque when she was around Krista’s age. She and her older sister, Martha, would stand outside late at night in their bathing suits eating Popsicles, listening to cricket music, naming all the constellations. By their teens they both lost interest in family time at the cottage in favor of summer jobs and boyfriends. Eventually Mr. Corcoran sold it. Lately Pauline wishes they still had the cottage so she could take Krista there.
“Everything go okay tonight?
“It was fine,” says Anthony. He downs the rest of his wine gets up from his seat.
Pauline cranes her neck as he sidles past her, sliding open the balcony doors. “Look, it’s not going to happen a lot.” She watches him disappear into the apartment. “Next time I’ll bring her to my parents.”
Anthony returns with the bottle of Riesling, purchased at a winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake when the three of them went for a drive a couple of weekends before. Krista kept nagging for a taste from the available sampling glasses until Pauline finally relented, letting her have a sip of sweet ice wine.
He pours himself more and tops her glass. “You don’t have to take her to your folks.” He sets the bottle down and has a sip. “Obviously I want to help out.” He is still standing, unsure of something. Putting his glass down, he takes the ashtray from the table and goes to the corner to light up a second cigarette.
“Please sit down and smoke,” says Pauline. “You’re making me nervous.”
As a concession, he moves his chair a bit farther from the patio table and sits. Holding the ashtray close to his chest with that air of guilty self-preservation peculiar to some smokers who are mentally preparing to quit.
Pauline still remembers the feeling. She quit almost seven years ago when she and Warren decided to try for kids. She’d been thirty-four and Warren was six years younger. Not long after Krista’s third birthday Pauline found his terse apology on the back of an envelope wedged behind the kitchen wall phone.
Anthony rests the ashtray in his lap and reaches for his wine glass. Pauline tries not to notice, wishing she could get up and go into the apartment to let him have his privacy, assuming that is what he wants. Cutting back is entirely his idea. When they were in the discussion stage of his moving in, he said he wanted to quit smoking as a way of showing his commitment to her and Krista. Pauline has suggested the patch or nicotine gum, but he wants to try it on his own first, weaning himself off little by little.
“She was sliding around in the tub tonight.”
Pauline’s eyes are closed, trying to feel the faint glow of the stars. “Sliding around?”
Anthony stubs out his cigarette. “You know what I mean.” He places the ashtray on the balcony’s concrete floor.
She opens her eyes, sees that he is not smoking but has not moved his chair back closer to her. “Did you say anything?”
“I just told her to get out and dry off.” He is looking right at her now. “She ignored me and I had to tell her again.”
Pauline nods, sympathetically she hopes. “You did the right thing.” She wants to tell him not to take it personally, that kids are always testing boundaries. “Thank you.”
His finger absently circles the rim of his glass, as if trying to coax a hidden music. Pauline listens carefully, imagining she can hear a faint rubbing sound, expecting it to bloom any second into a haunting melody. She stares up at what stars are visible through the city’s light pollution and counts them silently. Anthony stands up and sets his empty glass all too gently on the patio table. He edges past her and slips into the apartment, not bothering to close the glass doors behind him.
The ashtray remains on the balcony floor, cradling the two filter-ends crushed almost beyond recognition on a bed of ashes. She doubts Anthony will ever be able to quit completely, not even with the patch or the gum or whatever. What she’s never admitted to him is that she actually likes the smell of tobacco. It doesn’t tempt her to start smoking again. She never worries about that. Sniffing the air, she pours herself another glass of wine before getting up to close the glass doors.
The next night, a Friday, Krista has supper at her grandparents’ house. She is allowed to draw on her big pad for an hour before going to bed. Her mother and Anthony are having a special night to themselves: a movie and dinner at a restaurant. They have promised to take her to see Wall-E and then out for pizza on Saturday.
She lies on the living room carpet with colored pencils spread out carefully in a fan shape. The pad is open to a clean white page. Her grandfather sits in his big leaning-back chair watching a baseball game on TV. There is a special pocket in one of its arms where he keeps his glass of beer. Her grandmother is doing dishes in the kitchen.
Krista turns the pad sideways and chooses a light blue pencil to draw a rectangle almost the whole length of the blank page. She carefully colors in the rectangle, starting from the top left corner, shading with the side of her pencil the way her mother showed her. That morning her mother bent down on one knee to ask if she had been sliding in the tub. Krista turned away to read a book. Her mother took the book from Krista’s hands. “You know what I’m talking about.” Krista only stared at the brightly patterned patch on the knee of her mother’s blue jeans, letting her eyes go dead so that the pattern slid into blurry colors.
She takes her time shading in the rectangle, enjoying the repetition of her hand moving back and forth. The first time Anthony came over to the apartment she spent most of the time sitting in her yellow plastic chair reading one of her books. Sometimes she looked up and could see her mother and Anthony sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Later she heard footsteps and kept reading her book, pretending not to hear. When she did look up Anthony was sitting cross-legged on the floor. He asked her to read him a story. As she read to him she looked up every now and then and saw that his eyes were closed as he listened. He said he did this to picture in his mind the story she was reading. She liked that, his imagining everything she was saying.
Her grandmother comes into the living room. “Come on, my precious, it’s time for bed.” Her grandfather’s chair is all the way back, his slippered feet propped high on the footrest and both hands folded over his big stomach. His head is tilted back with mouth wide open, snoring deeply. “See?” says her grandmother. “Even Poppie knows it’s bed time.” She gives the footrest a gentle kick. “Ray, wake up.”
He opens his eyes and reaches for his glass of beer in the armrest pocket, taking a large swallow. He watches the baseball game on TV as if he had been doing that all along. Krista kisses him goodnight and wrinkles her nose at his sour breath. She sniffs the beer in his glass and puts her lips to the rim, trying to tilt it toward her mouth. “No, no, no,” he says and switches the glass to his other hand, holding it high in the air where she can’t get at it. “That’s not for little girls.”
She gathers up the drawing pad and pencils and follows her grandmother to the bedroom where her mother and Aunt Martha used to sleep and crawls under the covers. Her grandmother looks over her drawing. “Is this you?”
Krista nods and confirms, at her grandmother’s patient questioning, that the rectangle she is standing in is a bathtub.
“And what are these things coming out of the tub?”
“Those are arms.”
“Oh?” Her grandmother runs a hand down the back of Krista’s hair. “Is there somebody else in the tub?”
Krista slips away from her grandmother’s hand and slides back on the bed, pulling the covers up to her chin.
“It’s okay, you can tell me who else is in the tub.” She moves her ear closer to Krista. “Whisper it to me.”
Krista turns aside to show she is ready for sleep. Her grandmother puts the drawing pad on top of the bureau next to the colored pencils and leans over to kiss the top of her head. She closes her eyes until she feels the room go dark, only opening them to make sure the bedroom door has been left slightly open so there is light from the hallway coming in.
Eyes half-opened, Anthony watches Pauline tug a pair of bikini underwear up her thighs. She snaps the waistband against her hips. He’s bundled under the covers. A ray of Saturday morning sunlight edges laser-like through a crack in the curtains, bisecting the bed and accentuating the bump of his body. Severing his upper and lower halves. “Where are you going?”
“It’s quarter to eleven,” she says without turning around. “I said I’d get Krista at 11:30.”
She is pulling on jeans. Anthony snakes an arm out of the blanket, crooks two fingers in the elastic of her underwear and pulls her toward the bed. She teeters slightly off balance and allows herself to fall onto the bed. His hand cups her breast. “She’ll be okay with your folks for another half hour.”
The phone rings. Pauline glances at the call display and picks it up.
“Who is it?”
Pauline sits up. “Hi. I’m just on my way out. How’s Krista?”
Anthony rubs the small of her back and she stands up. He pulls his arm back under the covers.
“No, just me. I’m letting him sleep in.”
He wonders if he should get up and put on some clothes too.
“Okay,” says Pauline into the phone, flashing Anthony a puzzled look. “I’ll be there in forty-five minutes. Bye.”
She hangs up the phone and leaves her hand there. “Hmm.”
“Yeah. She just wanted to know when I was coming.”
“Is Krista okay?”
“Do you want me to come with you?
Pauline pulls a T-shirt over her head and brushes her hair. “No, sleep a bit more. We’ll be back around 12:30.”
After she is gone Anthony realizes he has to pee. For their date night they went to see Mamma Mia, happily hating it so much they left the movie theatre warbling shrilly at the top of their lungs: “Honey, I’m still free, take chance on me.” They shared a late and leisurely platter of fried noodles at Lucky 7 then back to the apartment to kill off a couple of bottles of wine in bed. By the second bottle they dispensed with glasses altogether. Pauline straddled him and took the first swig, then poured wine into Anthony’s open mouth. After the first swallow, laughing uncontrollably, she tried to pour more, but he pushed the bottleneck away. Then he tweaked one nipple, “Milk…” then the other, “…milk…” bucking his crotch against hers, “…lemonade…” and reached around to give her ass a playful slap, “…around the corner fudge is made.” Her momentary shock spilled into more drunken hooting, followed by a few retaliatory tweaks and slaps of her own, erupting into a wrestling match that managed to shift the mattress halfway off the bed. The memory of it embarrasses him a little.
Ever since bath night that stupid rhyme had been running through his head, buzzing around like a housefly trapped in a jar, or an inane song one can’t shake off (take a chance, take a chance, take a chance). While Pauline was driving Krista to her parents’ house, he found himself on his knees with a scouring pad and a can of Comet, laboring over the tub’s porcelain as if trying to scrub away a phantom stain. His arm churned like a piston to the childish rhythm in his head (milk… milk…) until his raw fingers finally forced him to give up: the rhyme somehow morphing into something his mother used to say after the divorce, about being dealt lemons and making lemonade.
The bisecting ray of sunlight moves closer to his chest. If he gets up now he can pee, take a shower and still have time for a cup of coffee and a smoke out on the balcony before they get home. That’s the game plan in his head, a mantra he repeats over and over again (pee, shower, coffee, smoke, no need to fix what ain’t broke) as he empties the bureau drawers and bedroom closet of his things into an old knapsack.