The Girl No One Knows
Mr. Dell, in his daughter’s room, stuck his face into the horn of a stargazer lily, one of a . . . one of a . . . must have been a dozen, and he breathed in and said wasn’t that something. And wasn’t it: the pileup of cards, a stuffed bear, a bouquet of balloons, a banner, a bed jacket, books on tape.
We love you, Astra! The chorus to his daughter was always the same, and he, too, said the same, but he did not look at her famished face, did not meet her eye, did not take her hand; he wheezed out only so much cheer. “That party at the Mortons’” was how he started. Mr. Dell stood between his daughter’s bed and the window and described what he could of the Mortons’ party. “I’ve been to Suki’s before, Dad.” Okay, he had forgotten, so other things, then. Not far into the kickoff fund-raiser, the host had stood on a piano bench to say he was not sorry to be so poorly acquainted with the parents gathered, but he expected to know a lot about everyone by the end of the school year when the money for the senior gift was raised. “Then Mr. Morton expected he would never see any of us again.”
“That sounds like Suki’s dad.”
“Suki’s mother is funny.”
The room Suki’s father had spoken in was a very big, cream-colored box of a room, a cake box, a hatbox, something large and expensive. Mr. Dell described the party to his daughter in the way Grace would have described it: how things looked and sounded, the gurgle of civility among designing adults. He described what it felt like to be known as the parent of such a child, his own, his only, his best, bright addition.
“Dear, dear Astra, how are you feeling?” he asked now.
“Daddy,” Astra said, and she smiled when she told him how corny he was.
He told his daughter who had come to the Mortons’. Mrs. Forestal was there, so Mr. Forestal was not. Mr. and Mrs. Van de Ven, Mrs. Abiola, the Cohens, and Mr. Fratini were there. “I talked a lot to Alex’s mother—is that woman crazy? The Johnsons were not in attendance. The headmistress, Miss Brigham, was there for a short speech, and she asked after you—everyone there asked after you, darling. Everyone sends love.” Then he remembered that the Johnsons were in Europe meeting somebody royal.
Astra said, “The Johnsons have expensive fights that end with new jewels.”
The Mortons’ apartment was all bloody mahogany and damask. Crystal chandeliers, those plinking rainbows, were hanging everywhere. Double sconces, elaborate molding, herringbone floors. The caterers were using monogrammed family silver. The word expansive came to mind, or a three-tiered cake on a crystal stand, a monument in buttercream frosting, swags of sugar violets, silver dots. That was the equivalent dessert to the Mortons’ apartment as far as Mr. Dell was concerned. He looked at Astra again and saw how tired she was; her eyelids looked swollen as if she had been crying, and perhaps she had cried. He hadn’t been here for all the tests; he was at work.
“I wish I could be hungry,” Astra said. She shut her eyes.
Good night, ladies, good night, ta, ta, or however it went. Mr. Dell thought literature should be a consolation, but what he most often remembered did not comfort him. He did not have his wife’s gift, Astra’s inheritance from Grace for hope and serenity. Sick as his little girl was, she yet lay hopeful of recovery—fearful, too, at times, at times overwhelmed, given to deep, jagged sobs, and yet . . . she was sick and in pain on a sad floor in the hospital, and yet she seemed to feel his terror, his sorrow, and she consoled him by being mostly mild, sleepy, quiet. Most of the time when he visited, she slept and slept. She grew smaller.
Again he asked and again, day after day, “How do you feel?”
Better. Not well. Sick. Hurting. Hurting a lot. Here is where it hurts the most. Look at what they did.
Why was it hard to look when he had already looked into disaster, into the broken face of his beautiful wife in a bag on a gurney? Yes, he remembered saying to the figures standing behind him—a row of janitors, a man with a mop at attention was that who? Policemen? Morticians? Yes. My wife. This is Grace Walker Dell, yes. My wife.
What business had Grace there on that street at that hour? Why had she not been home, but she was saving money looking for a new lamp on Bowery. He wanted her here with him at this other, terrible bedside. He should not have to be alone.