Seven Minutes to Noon
Alice Halpern waited on a bench in Carroll Park in the sticky heat of early September. She drained the last of her iced decaf from a waxed-paper cup that buckled in her grip. Lauren was late. Her cup, sealed with a plastic top, had formed a skin of tiny droplets. The ice had probably melted by now. She would be disappointed; she liked her drinks icy cold.
The sun shifted and Alice felt its rays burn into her skin, still milky white from months of pampering with sunblock. A redhead, she knew better than to go out without her wide-brimmed hat, which she had left hanging on the coat stand as she hustled to get the kids out the door to school this morning. She moved down the bench into a remaining patch of shade and glanced again at her watch; it was now ten to three.
In a few minutes, the neat brick school building across the street from the park would open its doors and spill the little ones back into the world in a rowdy convocation. Alice took a long, deep breath, savoring the relative calm of these last minutes before the riptide of motherhood dragged her forward until night. She wondered now if she should have stayed in the air-conditioned store, unpacking the latest shipment of autumn shoes. She should have confirmed with Lauren before heading out early into the scalding afternoon. The heat felt like a woolen blanket cinched around her, dark and suffocating. Six months into her third pregnancywith twins, double the trouble, double the funshe could already feel the babies pressing against her lungs.
She tried to remember what Lauren had said yesterday about her plans for today: morning errands, then her Pregnant Pause Pilates class at noon in Park Slope. Lauren loved the class and had been urging Alice to join, but she felt she didn't have the time; between work at Blue Shoes and obligations at home, she couldn't squeeze in one more thing. But Lauren was devoted to her Pilates class and always went. Still, she was more than eight months pregnant with her second child and the heat wave may have dissuaded her.
Alice found her cell phone at the bottom of her purse and speed-dialed Lauren's cell. When her voice mail came on, Alice left a message. Then she called Lauren at home and left another message on the machine.
She dropped the phone back into her purse and pulled out the folded, now crumpled letter she was eager to share with Lauren. Flattening it across her lap, she read it again, with its bold, blunt title: THIRTY DAY NOTICE OF EVICTION. She had been served the summons at the store just an hour ago, feeling betrayed that her landlord, Joeyformer landlord, as of the sale of his brownstone two days agohad supplied the new owner with her work address. The letter was signed Julius Pollack, owner. Why hadn't Mr. Pollack, owner, contacted them first? Discussed it? Found out how diligently Alice and Mike had been house hunting lately? Lauren and her husband, Tim, had received a similar notice earlier in the summerhers signed by a managing agent for Metro Propertiesgiving them the same thirty days to vacate their apartment before eviction proceedings would begin. Both lawyers, they were fighting it; but they lived in a multiunit dwelling, the litmus test of responsibilities and rights that apartments in private homes, like Alice and Mike'sno, Julius Pollack'slacked. Their lease with Joey had expired and Pollack was under no obligation to renew it. Alice and Mike had hard decisions to make now: should they undergo the exorbitant and exhausting project of moving twice, first to a rental, then to a house they owned? Put the kids, and themselves, through all that? Or dig in their heels and demand the time they needed to move just once to some place they could rightly call their home? Alice needed facts. Where was Lauren? Surely she could offer sage legal advice and also commiserate over the shock and humiliation of being summarily tossed out of your home.
As the minutes ticked by, Alice's disappointment grew at the missed opportunity to quietly dissect the new development with Lauren. It would be hard to discuss the notice in front of the kids. She had already spoken with Mike on the phone and they had agreed not to worry the children until it was figured out. Alice and Lauren would have to break their conversation into bits, fitting it into random pockets of privacy during the children's after-school playground time. It was better than nothing.
She carried Lauren's soggy cup of iced decaf with her, just in case she did come soon, and walked across the street to the entrance of P.S. 58, where parents and babysitters had gathered in force. The kindergarteners came out first, led single file by their teacher. Peter and Austin were at the end of the line, holding hands; they had been best friends almost from birth and were said to be inseparable in class. Alice knelt down to their eye level and kissed both boys hello.
"How was school?" she asked Peter, shifting forward to plant an extra kiss on her son's irresistibly soft cheek.
"How was school for you?" she asked Austin. He had Lauren's light brown hair, cut short, and tufted after a day at school.
"What did you guys do today?"
"Good," Peter said, drawing giggles from Austin.
Alice stood up and scanned the crowd for Lauren. It was chaotic; she could easily be missed. Alice didn't see her but there was no point sending up alarms quite yet. She would just stand here until Nell came out, and if Lauren still wasn't here, then she would decide what to do about Austin.
Nell was at the front of the second-grade line, swinging her purple lunch box loosely from her hand. Alice waved. Nell said good-bye to her teacher and darted away from her classmates.
"Hey, sweetie, how was school?" Alice asked."Good," Nell said. "No homework again today!"
Alice figured that by Monday, homework would make its unwelcome appearance. But she didn't want to burst Nell's bubble, so she just said, "Great!" and took her hand.
All of the kindergarteners had been picked up. Peter and Austin stood by the fence, thumb wrestling. Their teacher, Gina, was herself now scanning for Lauren.
"I think I should just take Austin," Alice told Gina. "I have a funny feeling Lauren might have gone into labor."
"Really?" Gina smiled. She was a young woman with long brown hair and tiny but piercing eyes. "How exciting!"
It had already been prearranged for Alice to pick Austin up from school when the baby came, so Gina didn't question the suggestion. She told the boys to enjoy their weekends, and to Austin added, "Congratulations, big brother!"
Alice cringed; she wished Gina hadn't said that. What if Lauren was just plain late?
She took the three children back across the street to the park to wait a while longer for Lauren, just in case. Once on the curb, they bolted straight to the big kids' side of the playground, where the jungle gyms were taller, the slides steeper, and innocence noticeably dampened by age.
Alice sat on the bench and tried calling Lauren again at both her numbers, but again, there was no answer. Maybe Maggie was still at Blue Shoes; maybe she had heard something. Alice dialed the store phone but it rang and rang. Strange, she thought; Maggie was either in the bathroom or she wasn't there at all. Five minutes later, Alice tried again. And again, no luck.
A Mr. Frosty truck pulled up at the park entrance nearest to them, and the children hurdled out of play. Nell, Peter and Austin accosted Alice with demands for ice cream money, issuing varied tones of pleases calibrated for results. She dug into her wallet, producing dollar bills. The children took them and raced off, returning a few minutes later with beady-eyed, fluorescent popsicles fashioned after action heroes and their nemeses, which may or may not have derived from actual ice cream. Nighttime baths would remove most of the colored streaks from their faces and arms, but Alice knew that a slight fluorescent shadow would still be visible come morning.
The children wove themselves back into the cacophony of play. Phone cradled in her hand, Alice watched them reel from ladder to slide to monkey bars. Then she thought to try Maggie's cell, this time with success.
"Mags! Where are you?"
Somewhere behind Maggie, Alice heard the fading wail of a departing siren.
"Getting Ethan from school. As soon as you left the store, Sylvie called in sick," Maggie said in her crisp British accent. Sylvie, Ethan's babysitter, normally picked him up from his private school in the Heights. "Can you imagine? What about a little advance notice?"
"Do you think she was lying?"
"She said she'd just come down with a stomachy thing, maybe something she ate," Maggie said. "Ethan! Please wait for the walk light!"
Alice could picture them: tall, glamorous, blond Maggie at the mercy of her little boy. Ethan was the spitting image of his father, Simon, whom Maggie had summarily divorced last year despite all evidence that she still loved him. They equally shared Ethan, this little boy with his father's haunting good looks, tugging on his mother's hand.
© Katia Lief