Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Primitive Heart

Stories

by David Rabe

“As the characters play hide-and-seek with themselves, we’re forced to come out of hiding to shift our own positions and philosophy. Rabe has a way of implicating the reader–of creating a near-claustrophobic bond with his restless characters, writing so convincingly that the subtext becomes almost palpable, accruing darkly, like a storm. Okay: I’m eating my heart out.” –Ann Beattie

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date October 17, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4277-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9685-9
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

“These are gripping stories, hard to put aside, that cut so close to primitive emotional truths that they can be painful to read. . . . That vivid confusion–the desire to understand something more primitive than thought–makes these stories unforgettable.” –Richard Wakefield, The Seattle Times

A Primitive Heart shows David Rabe to be a fiction writer of range and versatility. Whether he is writing about a marriage shadowed by the unac­knowledged discord of a risky pregnancy, a group of men whose attempt to settle an account launches them toward unexpected violence, or a young jour­nalist who believes he’s escaped his Catholic roots only to be forced again to confront them by a priest who once mentored his writing, Rabe’s strong, true voice tenders an inimitable portrait of America and offers benediction to her lost souls. A Primitive Heart confirms the mastery of a writer acclaimed as “piercingly clear-eyed” by Ben Brantley of The New York Times and establishes David Rabe as an exciting voice in fiction.

Praise

‘david Rabe demonstrates in this new collection of short stories that his talent for dialogue is just as dazzling inside a prose narrative as it is on stage. . . . Rabe seems to relish the power to delve into the mind of a char­acter in a way that just isn’t practical in the theaters.” –Michael Shelden, The Baltimore Sun

“These are gripping stories, hard to put aside, that cut so close to primitive emotional truths that they can be painful to read. . . . That vivid confusion–the desire to understand something more primitive than thought–makes these stories unforgettable.” –Richard Wakefield, The Seattle Times

“As the characters play hide-and-seek with themselves, we’re forced to come out of hiding to shift our own positions and philosophy. Rabe has a way of implicating the reader–of creating a near-claustrophobic bond with his restless characters, writing so convincingly that the subtext becomes almost palpable, accruing darkly, like a storm. Okay: I’m eating my heart out.” –Ann Beattie

“Rabe at his acerbic best.” –Anne Arenstein, Cincinnati CityBeat

“Marked by strikingly good observational prose–perceptively sketch[es] the experiences of 21st-century misfits.” –Publishers Weekly

“Brightened . . . by compassion of deft psychological insight . . . Rabe carefully renders the provisional reconciliation of teacher and student, a moment of genuine grace.” –Kirkus Reviews

A Primitive Heart is not only an exhibition of David Rabe’s acclaimed dramatic powers but also proof of his narrative magic. Here are six riveting stories in which characters are pulled by the rip tide of circumstance beyond comfort and predictability into murky and treacherous waters.” – Billy Collins

“It’s a great boon to his fans that David Rabe has the courage to follow his gift where it takes him. His stories are as wonderful as his plays–intriguing, powerful, and true.” –Denis Johnson

Excerpt

A PRIMITIVE HEART

HIS WIFE PHONED him from California to tell him she was spotting. She was at a girlfriend’s house in the hills north of Malibu. She had just flown back from Hawaii where she had been vacationing with her friend. Staying at inns in the backcountry, they had hiked through jungle trails and climbed barren volcanic slopes.

It was a strange phrase, ‘spotting.” Pushing one foot and then the other against the floor, he started pivoting his swivel chair back and forth. Her words had provided him with an image of her panties darkly mottled like pavement with the first few flecks of rain. She was a little over four months pregnant.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“They don’t know. I mean, exactly. Or they won’t say.”

“But it’s not good.”

“No, it’s not good. How could it be good?”

“What started it?”

“It started on the plane.”

“Is that what caused it? The trip, somehow. The plane–the altitude or something.”

“No.”

“Did the doctor say “no’? Did you ask him that?”

“He said that he didn’t know. He said a number of things could have caused it. We might never know.”

“But could it have been the trip? Could one of those things have been the trip, or did he say that wasn’t possible?”

“Are you trying to blame me? Is that what you want?”

“No.”

“It sounds like it. It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do. You can if you want. I don’t care what caused it.”

“What are you supposed to do?”

“It’s here, that’s all I know. It’s here. It’s happening. It’s terrible and it’s happening. That’s all I know.”

“What are you supposed to do?”

“I don’t care what caused it. He said I should rest here a couple of days and then if it’s stopped, which it probably will, he said, then I can fly back to New York.”

Daniel sat for a moment silently leaning forward on his desk. His elbows adjusted to support his chin with one hand, while the other held the phone to his ear.

“It might have been the amniocentesis,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“It might have been the amniocentesis.”

“What?” he said. Her words had thumped into his brain, leaving him startled as if someone had just shouted at him.

“They might have nicked the sack, the placenta, when they went in and that could have caused this. Somehow.”

“How?”

“I don’t know exactly. But it’s a foreign body. The needle. If it nicked the placenta, then there could be a flaw in the sack that might get better or it might get worse or it might be infected.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I could miscarry.”

He noticed now that he had started doodling on his phone message pad: a series of interlocking triangles, one of which was adorned with a sort of bowler hat. He had never liked the prospect of these men going in there with their foot-long goddamn needle. He started blocking out the open spaces in the triangles, obliterating every speck of open space.

“Sarah and Biff are fighting,” she said. Sarah was the girl she had traveled to Hawaii with and Biff was Sarah’s husband.

“What about?”

“Well, when he was helping her unpack, he found that she had taken her diaphragm with her and that really pissed him off. He’d been under the illusion that she didn’t take it with her. So there’s a lot of diaphragm rancor around here at the moment.”

“Oh,” he said. He could see it. Biff was robust and macho. He kept a lot of guns in the house. “Why was he helping her unpack?”

“Nobody knows.”

“He probably just figures a person wouldn’t take her diaphragm with her unless she was planning to get laid. I can see his point.”

“Yeh, but he’s hysterical on the subject. You know. Very righteous.”

“Oh, well, we wouldn’t want that.”

“Is that sarcasm? I hope not–I don’t have the energy. You should save it for the office, Daniel.”

The silence that followed grew increasingly uneasy until he ended it by asking her if she was scared that they might lose the baby. That brought on another pause. He imagined her pacing out from the kitchen of Biff and Sarah’s house onto the deck that overlooked foothills descending to the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean itself. He imagined her carrying the phone as she crossed the planking that Biff had cut and planed and nailed in place, her dark hair fuzzily unkempt at this early California hour, a mug of coffee in her hand, her lithe body camouflaged by one or another of the gigantic men’s T-shirts she liked to wear to bed. Leaning on the railing, she looked out of her clear dark eyes toward the ocean that appeared a restless haze beneath the faint mist. He imagined her listening to the wind snaking though the gullies in the hillside, bouncing off the rocky slopes. She didn’t have to answer his question. “Try not to worry,” he said.

“Yeh,” she said. ‘sure.”

When he hung up, Daniel busied himself with a quick perusal of several briefs, then told his secretary to hold all his calls. The file he chose contained a week’s worth of financial pages along with his notes and analysis. Reviewing the data quickly, he punched his broker’s code on the speed dial. When Arthur Simmons answered, Daniel announced that he wanted to make the move they had been debating, and he wanted to do it before the bell closed the day down. “I don’t care if the gap is ominous, Arthur,” he said. “It’s a mirage and it’ll be gone by tomorrow. I want to get in at today’s closing price and I want options.”

“I think this is folly, Daniel. We’re both looking at the same charts.”

“The fluctuations are over. It’s going to break out and I want to be in it as big as I can manage.”

“I don’t quite understand what’s going on here,” said Arthur in a concerned tone that suggested Daniel was on the verge of making an error.

“You understand what I want, though, don’t you,” Daniel said, treating Arthur’s implied perils as a dare to be met with defiance.

“Is that how we’re going to operate, you and me? What’s going on here?”

“It’s how we’re going to operate today.”

Looking out the window afterward, he watched the sun lowering beyond the wall of buildings that in their irregular heights appeared brutish, inhospitable spires. He saw Melissa and Sarah walking through these craggy, volcanic shapes, talking about him. Then he saw and heard the hours of his own conflict with Melissa that had filled the days just before her departure to Hawaii. He’d opposed the whole thing, laying out his reasons lucidly, in measured, neutral terms. Guided by his belief that a systematic presentation would be most effective, he knew better than to challenge her, or to give her a chance to accuse him of bullying her. Even after she’d climbed into the cab that would speed her to the airport, his faith in the power of his arguments lingered, and he waited for the points he knew he’d made to win her over before she boarded the plane, envisioning her at the airport canceling the trip in a last-minute reversal. She could be so careless, he thought, so willful. So unaware of consequences.

* * *

He arrived for his tennis match early and changed hurriedly into his shorts and shirt before pacing and brooding over a Diet Coke. He felt restless and edgy and ready to play. More often than not work-related stress or personal aggravation fueled his game, enabling him to play at a very high level. But once he was on the court it didn’t take long for him to see that things weren’t going to be that way for him today. His opponent Otto Weber believed that talk was a legitimate weapon to be used along with a sharp volley or a spin serve, and so he peppered his matches with a array of distracting curses, idle conversation, an occasional compliment, along with whatever else came into his mind. Today, he was brazenly subversive, reporting on the nature of every error Daniel made, and there were many of them. Daniel struggled for a while, trying to ignore Otto and find a way into the game, but he couldn’t concentrate. He seemed unable to mount even a mild curiosity regarding the course of the ball. With a forehand stroke half completed, his shoulder inexplicably locked, launching the ball in a high floating arc out of bounds. Every time he pressed the ball skyward to serve, it seemed to sail into a great vat of liquid, where a fishy figure with human arms and eyes squirmed.

Before going home, he stopped at a bar and ordered a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. The after-work hubbub and dimness was filled with men, predominantly. He studied the few women, especially a blonde in a suit rooting through her briefcase. He contemplated her, wondering what kind of life she would give him, considering his options. For an hour, he nibbled peanuts, nursed drinks, and asked himself what the hell was going on, while the local news and then the network news flashed across the television elevated in a corner above the tiers of bottles. The blonde, joined by two other fashionably attired career types, moved to a table and ordered dinner.

At a bookstore near the West End apartment he shared with his wife, he went in expecting to pick up some detective fiction and came out with a sack full of books on pregnancy, birth, babies, prenatal life. Data. Research. Evidence. Logic was useless without preparation. He hated feeling ignorant. At a Chinese restaurant down the street from the bookstore, he purchased a container of egg drop soup and some Szechuan chicken.

Their apartment was on the twelfth floor. Certain angles in the spacious living room offered a view of the flat gray Hudson River. As he strode through the empty rooms to set his parcels down on the dining room table, he caught sight of the running lights of a tugboat in a wedge of fading sun unblocked by the intervening buildings. Then their dog, a female yellow Lab, Gracie, came running up. He patted her, and went to the kitchen, filling her red plastic bowl with food. She wanted his attention but he wasn’t interested as he hurried to establish himself with his books, a yellow legal pad, some seltzer and a glass of ice, along with the Chinese food on the dining room table near the window.

Sniffing the chicken, he picked a piece and took a bite, and sat there chewing as he read that in the third week the embryo altered from a ball to a sort of hook-shaped pear, that it developed a head and tail, a neural groove, a primitive heart. By the fifth week, the head, brain, and mouth had begun to form. Nutrients, hormones, oxygen, antibodies were passed from the mother’s bloodstream to the infant in exchange for waste products that the mother’s bowels and kidneys eliminated. By the eighth or ninth week, budlike protrusions on the sides and base of the torso would be identifiable as arms and legs. The eyes, ears, nose, and sex organs also would be established by this time. In the third month, there would be fingernails, toenails, bones, and facial characteristics.

Suddenly, he felt a pang, a grumbling in his bowels, and he had to go to the bathroom so violently that he leaped to his feet and ran for the toilet, fearing that he might actually go in his pants. Flinging his trousers down, he erupted with hissing, splashing, and stink. He was fretting as he sat there that the food might have been tainted, or that he was coming down with the flu.

When he felt better, he wanted some fresh air, so he hooked the dog to her leash and set out to walk her in the park. Once on the street, he detoured to Broadway and a little liquor store that he frequented near Eighty-third Street. He bought a pint of Jack Daniel’s. His path to Riverside took him past the outstretched hands of several street-corner beggars. With a bottle in his own back pocket he felt a faint, indirect kinship that inclined him to drop some change into the paper cup of a black man with empty eyes and a white crud on his lips.

At the edge of the park, Daniel scouted the shadows and opened the bottle. As he let the dog off the leash, he glanced up at the sky and took his first drink. He settled onto a bench close to the entrance. He sat there, feeling outside the norm, like the panhandlers behind him.

Returning from her amniocentesis a month ago, his wife had been shaken. She had phoned him at work to tell him what had happened. The doctor who had administered the test at Manhattan Hospital had been recommended highly, described as someone both experienced and specialized. But with his officious nurse, he had struck Melissa as far more intent on instructing the murmuring students bunched around her belly than on the actual task he was performing on her. When he missed on his first try, he snorted in amazed disbelief and went in again. She felt, she said, like an example of something that wasn’t working out. She nearly fainted getting out of the cab at home. On the phone with Daniel, her voice was disoriented and feeble. Immediately, he called the hospital to speak to the doctor. But he never got beyond a smug nurse, who said that she hadn’t been at the procedure but she could assure him that working before students only made professional people more professional, and that if something should go wrong it would be due to “indeterminable elements’ and not “the procedure.” He told her he was a lawyer and he was going to sue them if there was any problem. He would become, he said, an “indeterminable element.” Sounding genuinely confused, she said she didn’t know what he was talking about, but that he couldn’t sue them under any circumstances because he and his wife had signed a release. Had he forgotten? He screamed at her that he was a lawyer and he had ways.

He opened his eyes, surprised that he had closed them in the park, and startled, also, to catch himself thinking that maybe if the baby died he would leave Melissa. It could be the right thing and he knew it. If it was, then maybe losing the baby would be the best thing. The marriage was not exactly a rock. More like something made of glass, something glittering and flawed and dangerous if broken. What the hell was she doing traipsing around Hawaiian jungles and volcanoes anyway when she was pregnant? He’d warned her. Maybe too tactfully. But when he came on too strong she just got more stubborn no matter what the issue. Maybe if the baby died she would at least start listening to him.

Back at the apartment, he watched a sitcom for a while, but it irritated him more than it amused him. He tapped the OFF button on the remote and decided to look over the charts that he and Arthur had disagreed about that morning. But then, made just a tinge insolent by the bourbon, he picked up the phone and called the Midwest to speak to his father. With the charts spread out on his lap, he leafed through them idly while he and his father indulged in some fragmented chitchat about various sports and teams. He took a hit of bourbon and, feeling like he was making a joke, found himself grinning as he managed to ask, ‘did you have any ambivalence–I mean, do you remember having any ambivalence when I was born?”

“What?”

“I’m just wondering if you had any ambivalence about being a father.”

“Whata you mean?”

“Well, I’m having ambivalence–you know, wondering if I really want–”

“No,” he said. His voice had something extraneous in it, like he was suppressing a cough or laugh. “We didn’t have that in those days.”

“Oh,” Daniel said, looking out the nearby window at a filthy pigeon strutting along a ledge. “That’s right. You didn’t. I forgot.”

“It wasn’t allowed.”

“I forgot that. Too bad.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It has its uses, I think.”

“What kind of smart-assed answer is that? I’m drunk, you know. I just want you to know who you’re talking to.”

“What’re you drinking?”

“None of your business.”

“I’m drinking, too. Jack Daniel’s.”

“Good stuff. I gotta go. Gotta take a leak. You wanna hang on?”

“No.”

“All right then. Bottoms up.”

Daniel took several rapid gulps of whiskey. Gracie was lying nearby and he turned to stare at her. She stirred, first raising her eyes to peek at him, then cocking her head as the force of his attention made her uneasy. He dropped to his knees and growled. With a worried start, the dog stood up. Daniel mocked her again, and Gracie lowered her head and shoulders until her chest touched the floor. From her fluttering lips came a whine of protest that evolved into a kind of grumble and ended in a sneeze. He snarled at her and moved in, nudging her with his shoulder. To escape her confusion she barked at him, and then she collapsed onto her side, rolling onto her back “nd lifting her legs in submission, her eyes pleading that he resume his proper role. He said, “Gimme a kiss. “Her eyes darted left and then right as she panted and raised her paws higher as if she thought perhaps he hadn’t seen them and didn’t know she was giving up. “You have to gimme a kiss,” he said.

Her confusion was giving way to sadness. He placed his hands on either side of her head and massaged the velvety rag-gedness of her ears. He flopped back on the floor, staring at the white ceiling where leaks from the apartment above had made a cluster of blisters, his arm extended so that his hand could flex in her fur.

It was a year since he had found out about his wife’s affair. They had been fighting regularly at the time that it happened, each retreating into a personal sanctuary from which they issued attacks and claims of righteousness. After a while, the air between them turned into a cold, disputed territory, and then business took him out of town. She said it hadn’t meant anything, and though he didn’t believe her, he knew that in a sense what she said was true. In the sense that the affair hadn’t been a matter of love, but a matter of bitterness between them, a matter of sex, a matter of consolation, a matter of keeping the upper hand, a matter of asserting a first-strike capability. If the only meaning permitted to qualify as meaning was love, then one could say that the affair had no meaning. On the other hand, it had a lot of meanings. It had left him miserable and wary of her. She, in her turn, declared that having the affair had convinced her that she wanted things to work out between them and that she wanted to get pregnant, if he was willing.

They had been apart when it happened–she in New York, he on a case in Texas for a six-week period that both knew was a sort of informal trial separation. He might have handled a confession of one encounter gracefully, but more than that meant she had liked it enough to go back for more. The thing she confessed to–they argued about whether to call it a ‘relationship” and never really settled the matter–had gone on for more than three weeks. He felt that made it a ‘relationship,” but she didn’t. He demanded details, received them, then broke several pieces of furniture.

Now he picked up the whiskey bottle; there was only a little left. He sipped it, saving some, then padded to the bedroom, where he took off his clothes and flopped down on the empty white bed. Though he could not see the moon out the window, the glow washing the sill and dresser told him the moon was over the river. Phrases and jargon from the reading he’d done kept bobbing up amid his other thoughts: hormones, antibodies, neural groove. The baby was a boy, but it wasn’t a baby yet, medically. What was it then and how was he to feel about the peril it was in? He wondered what was happening at the shifting markets all around the globe. Had he outsmarted them? He saw them starting up and stopping with the turning globe and blazing sun, Tokyo, Bonn, London. As he teetered at the edge of sleep, the term a primitive heart arose in a glare. He reached for the bottle, finished it. He turned to the window and it seemed his gaze was traversing the continent all the way to California, where his wife’s belly was flowering. The literal meaning of the phrase was a clinical description of a rudimentary pump, a basic functioning, but he kept seeing a wild creature, a little jungle figure; he felt scared for it, scared that it was inside her like it was. He thought about calling her. When he realized he was waking up, he saw he must have dozed off. It was still early in California. He turned on the light. But when he got the phone to his ear, he dialed Arthur’s number instead. A machine answered, and Daniel told it, “I hope you did what I said, Arthur, because this shit is going to happen and it’s going to happen big. I want my share. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Twenty minutes after the opening bell sent “the wheels of commerce into motion” the next morning, Daniel’s pick, a pharmaceutical stock, started to climb. Throughout the next week, it rose a little each day. Daniel watched its gradual but steady ascent and called Melissa several times a day. At the end of a week, the stock leveled off, and late that Friday, Melissa called him to say she would be arriving at Kennedy Airport Sunday evening.

He drove out early, parked, and sat in the lounge sipping a bourbon as he watched planes lumber into the sky, while others settled down. At the gate, he embraced her, trying to read the slim body pressed against him. He took her head between his hands and kissed her. Her belly was a little swollen. “You okay?” he said.

“So far so good.”

“Any trouble on the flight?”

“I’m fine.”

When they had walked to the exit of the terminal, he told her to wait where the skycap was piling her luggage, while he hastened off to get the car. The sun was making her squint as he drove back up. The wind was stirring her hair, pressing her rose-colored blouse and flounced skirt tightly around her, the hem flapping out on either side like fins. She was very tan. He smiled, relieved and a little surprised at how happy he was to see her. He pulled the trunk release and ran around to load her bags. Carefully placing each suitcase, he hoped to make the task a demonstration of his concern for her. When she reached for a small carry-on, he said, “No, no,” and snatched it up. Her response was hard to read, because she turned away, climbing into the car, but he thought she was pleased.

By the time he joined her, she had a k. d. lang tape playing. Smiling at him then, she said, “I’m really glad to be home. God, am I glad.”

“We’ll be okay,” he said. “You’ll just have to take it easy.”

“I’m up for that.”

They talked about politics. Melissa was optimistic, while Daniel felt there was always too much that was unknown. Catching sight of the tollgates on the Triborough Bridge ahead, he reached to the slot under the ashtray where he kept some tokens. An accident along the shoulder had left a bright red Jeep Cherokee nosed up against a dilapidated old Ford, the drivers gesticulating and contemplating their fender bender, and he was about to make a joke about it when she grunted, and he whirled to look at her.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, shit.”

“What?” His heart leaped, leaving a socket of emptiness.

“I’m bleeding.”

“Oh, no.”

“Just go home. They said this might happen.”

“Maybe we should go to the doctor.”

“No. Just go home.”

He double-parked, alerted the doorman to watch the car, and helped her up to the apartment. She said she would call the doctor while he went back down to find a temporary parking place. He argued that they should place the call before he put the car in the garage, in case the doctor wanted them to come in right away. She insisted. It was twenty minutes before he returned and found her lying down in the bedroom. She had a fashion magazine open as if she had been reading, but her eyes were red, her cheeks streaked where she had angrily wiped away tears.

“He wants me to come in first thing in the morning.”

“What did he say?”

“He said I should come in.”

“I know, but what does he think?”

“I’m supposed to stay in bed until the morning and then come in.”

“And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Has he any idea what’s going to happen? I mean how are we supposed to handle this–what can we expect?”

“He didn’t say. I’m going to try to go to sleep.”

‘do you think you can sleep?”

“I hope so. I’m tired.”

“Can I bring you anything? Do you want me to bring you anything? I’m a little hungry. I’m going to eat something in the kitchen.”

“Just come to bed, too, okay? Can you? Bring whatever you’re going to eat in here.”

When they woke up, it was seven-thirty and the bleeding had stopped. He phoned work to tell them he would not be in and then he accompanied her to the doctor’s office. In the waiting room, he tried to read Newsweek but found himself peeking at the pregnant women surrounding him on the leather chairs beneath the tiers of potted plants and antique wallpaper. They seemed to attest to something prosaic, even luxuriant in pregnancy that he and Melissa were being denied. At last he was called in to join her.

Dr. Hefflin’s office was elegant, yet formal, with a big mahogany desk backed by bookcases. As Daniel entered, Dr. Hefflin, a lean whippet of a man with black intense eyes, stood up and reached out to shake hands. He wore a chalkstripe suit, a gray, burgundy-striped silk tie. Behind him hung pictures of his three children, ranging from an infant to a handsome sandy-haired boy of at least fifteen.

“I have to stay in bed,” said Melissa.

“That’s the way it looks,” Dr. Hefflin added in a tone that suggested a possible alternative.

“For how long?” asked Daniel.

“The whole pregnancy,” said Dr. Hefflin, removing whatever hope he had seemed to offer.

“So that’s what I’ll do,” she said, smiling bravely. “If it’s what I have to do, then I’ll do it.”

“Mind you,” said the doctor, “there’s no guarantee that even that will safeguard the pregnancy. She could spontaneously abort at any moment.”

“It was the amniocentesis that caused it, wasn’t it?” said Daniel.

“I don’t know. I mean, that’s a possibility, but I can’t say for sure. I only wish I’d administered it, then this would not have happened–if that is the cause, which I can’t really say it is.”

“Did she tell you how they went in twice?”

“That’s normal procedure if the first attempt is unsuccessful.”

“What would have caused this, though–this trouble, I mean. What else–if it wasn’t them nicking the placenta?”

“It’s a perfected technique. If that’s what happened, it’s most unusual. With ultrasound the baby’s position is so accurately defined that the chances of harm are very low. It’s something less than a two percent chance that the baby could be caused to abort.”

“And if you go in twice, what are the odds? Do they double?”

“This could be the result of something else entirely.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with him, is there? I mean, in all the sonograms and everything, there’s nothing really wrong with him.”

“Not as far as we can tell. But sometimes there’s just no way to know what makes these things happen. If she rests, if she’s careful and lucky, and the contractions don’t start, then we could make it. But if the placental tissue has been harmed or if there’s any other difficulty that we might not know about, then contractions could begin, and there’ll be a spontaneous abortion. Harm to the placenta will create a flawed aura about the pregnancy making it seem incapable of getting to term–just as if there were something wrong with the baby, or something naturally or inherently wrong with the placenta–so it’s nature’s way of getting rid of imperfect babies. Once contractions start and continue with any regularity, there’ll be no turning back. The baby will just be delivered.”

“But too young to survive.”

“Well, yes. Presently. But if we get through the next couple of months and we are in a later term, well, we might make it then.”

When they got back to their building, Daniel double-parked again, then helped her to the elevator and into their apartment and down the hallway to the bedroom. She moved very slowly, her attention directed within, as if she had heard a faint and frightening noise and she was waiting for it to come again.

“I hope I can do it,” she said, lying down on the bed. “I just don’t know if I can stay in bed for five months. It’s such a long time. How can I? I want to. I want this little baby to be born. I’ll try. I just don’t know if I can.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s going to be hard.”

“I feel like my body will just fall apart. What will my body be like after month after stupid month of just lying in this bed? I won’t have the strength to give birth. I won’t have had any exercise, I’ll just lie here.”

“We’ll have to figure out things for you to do.”

“Right,” she said. “But what? I mean, five months in bed. Five months. Think of it!” She lunged sideways as if to throw herself onto her stomach, but she froze. “I’m afraid to move.”

“If only we hadn’t had that goddamn amniocentesis,” he said.

“You’re going to have to shut up about that,” she told him. “We had to have it. I’m too old not to have had it.”

“I didn’t want it.”

“I know you didn’t. But I had to have it.”

“We could have taken our chances just like everybody used to.”

“And ended up with a Down syndrome baby who–”

“Well, now we’ve got a perfectly healthy baby who’s in jeopardy because “” He stopped and shook his head as if his thoughts were annoying insects he could escape by startling them away.

“Because of what?” she said.

“I didn’t want it, that’s all.”

“I’m not so sure you even wanted to get pregnant, is the truth.”

He stared at her, feeling cold, and he thought, I’m divorcing her if this baby’s dead. I’m divorcing her. But he said, “I’m going shopping. We shouldn’t fight.”

“I don’t want to. I need you.”

“I know.”

“I need your help, Danny. On this thing. I really do.”

“I have to put the car away,” he said. “And get some groceries. I’ll walk the dog.”

It was more than an hour before he was back unloading the food in the kitchen. He plunked two slices of bread into the toaster, and when they popped he slapped on some butter, then added and mashed down gobs of peanut butter and jelly. He filled a blue plastic tumbler with milk. He paced to the living room table by the window. The Hudson was coated with a restless shimmer. He dropped a hunk of sandwich onto the floor for the dog to eat and stuffed the remainder into his own mouth. He finished the milk and undressed so he could climb into bed with a minimal disturbance of Melissa, whom he hoped to find sleeping.

She was lying flat on her back, motionless and breathing smoothly, as he peered in. Sneaking onto the empty space beside her, he hoped he would doze off quickly and sleep long and deep, but with his eyes closed he found he was worried about the infant. Misperceived as tainted, it might be expunged at any moment.

The scratching at the door was the dog. After a moment she nosed her way in. Studying him, she set her chin on the edge of the mattress. He looked into her eyes, and the rage he felt startled him. He saw himself chasing her from the room and following her into the kitchen where he slapped her and slapped her, knocking her down, kicking her. He felt fragile as he rose from bed, his bones artificial, his breath cold. “No,” he whispered, the force of his tone sending the dog away, as he pressed the door shut behind her.

The next day Daniel started on Melissa’s accommodations. He was haunted by a need to atone for a misdeed he couldn’t specify. It seemed connected to her, and he wanted to ask her what she thought it was, but he knew that she had enough to take care of without him yammering at her. Instead, he would pour himself into tending her, ignoring his suspicion that his solicitude had antagonistic roots. His feelings were irrelevant. What was needed was consideration. He bought a new TV and had it installed in the bedroom where they already had a cable outlet. Calling from his office, he made arrangements to subscribe to every possible cable hookup. At 47th Street Photo, he bought the best VCR on the market. The one they already had in the living room was basic. Besides, he wanted to keep it where it was, so he could watch it without bothering her if she was sleeping, or had visitors, or wanted to watch something that didn’t interest him. Making a quick stop at a Broadway video store he purchased a number of tapes and grabbed several copies of the catalog teeming with films to rent and to buy. By the time he sat down on the bed beside her with the new VCR installed and the catalogues spread around them, he felt changed. The bustle and the nature of his actions seemed to have eliminated his complaints, converting them into a cheery sense of duty. As he explained to her how she could use the catalogues to have almost any movie she wanted delivered, he felt they were a team, their interests identical, their loyalty firm.

“This won’t be so bad,” she said.

“No, no, no.”

“But what if I can’t do it? What if I just can’t lie here for five months?” Tears brimmed from her eyes; they gleamed in little bubbles that collapsed down her cheeks. She shook her head, her lips shaping words that her silent glance declared foolish. She turned away; he stroked her temple and then her ear with his knuckle. “It’s okay,” he said. But it wasn’t. Her inability to renounce her own needs made her seem unreliable and selfish, someone he wasn’t sure he liked. He worried she lacked the necessary discipline and self-restraint. She was a woman after all, her emotions easily overwhelming her, making her erratic, so it was difficult for her to follow a steady course. How could she fail to understand her responsibility here, that it was something she didn’t have the right to shirk just because it was hard?

With his arm around her, he soothed her brow, hoping to deliver affection and sympathy, while fearing that he was communicating little more than civility.

Most days, several of her girlfriends showed up to visit. They sat around the bed making jokes, telling her about their adventures at work or the developments in their love lives. Melissa’s spirits seemed high most of the time, and as a consequence Daniel was also in a less troubled state. There was no denying the tedium, the aggravation, of what she was trying to do. As he watched her searching for the resources that would enable her to cope, he saw more clearly the depths of her courage. Yet there were moments when she was preoccupied and he lost track of himself, and then he would catch himself studying her intently, almost bitterly, wondering what she was really thinking.

In the middle of the first week, she excitedly informed him that she had received permission from Dr. Hefflin to exercise while lying in bed. “And that’s not a sex joke,” she told Daniel as he opened his mouth to speak. She had devised a series of leg lifts and arm lifts, which she proceeded to show him. The qualms he felt as he watched her gamely trying to enjoy herself were related to the baby’s welfare. He could imagine her pestering Dr. Hefflin about how she couldn’t stand just lying there until he gave in and prescribed a routine. His impulse to tell her that maybe she shouldn’t exercise, that maybe it would be dangerous appeared to highlight some petty grudging factor in his own nature whose demands he did not want to obey. Instead of speaking, he looked down approvingly at her ingenuity and industry. When she laughed he found himself joining her.

Toward the end of the second week, four girlfriends appeared on the same evening. Daniel had to haul extra chairs into the bedroom. Two of the girls had brought Indian food from a new restaurant on Columbus Avenue. When Daniel, at about ten o’clock, returned from walking the dog, the pungent odor of curry and other exotic flavors was in the air. The mood was festive. Melissa was laughing and telling the story of Sarah and her husband and the diaphragm. A chain reaction of knowing looks traveled the room. Holding up her plate in order to be served by Carrie, an investment banker and friend since college, Melissa said, ‘more please. More.”

“Yes, Your Royalness,” said Carrie, dumping curried lamb over scoops of rice.

“That’s right,” said Melissa. “I feel like a queen.”

“Yeh,” said Ruth, an independent movie producer who had met Melissa when they were both working on a Democratic fund-raiser a few years ago. “I’m starting to envy this con of yours. This is not such a bad lifestyle you have devised for yourself.”

When they were gone and Daniel had climbed into bed, Melissa gave him a pat, then curled into him as he lay on his side, facing away. “I had fun,” she said. “How many days has it been?”

“Almost two weeks.”

“I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

The next morning, with dawn still hours away, Daniel awoke to pee. As he pulled himself into a sitting position, something in the twilight nature of the moment gripped him with an overwhelming sense of nearby authority and presence. A kind of voice was addressing him. It seemed to belong to an animal with big ears and dark hairy eyebrows. The glowing nimbus backing the event somehow identified the speaker as a messenger and the message was that today was the day to sell the stocks that Daniel had ordered Arthur to buy less than a month ago. He was on his feet by now, staggering into the bathroom to stand wavering at the toilet.

From the second his shrill alarm clock battered him back to consciousness in the morning, he was haunted by the sensation that he’d thought of something important in the night, or maybe been told it yesterday at work, and its significance had been obvious at the time but now he could recall nothing. He hated the feeling, and as he shaved and made some eggs and coffee, as he sat on the subway jerking and flashing to his stop, as he hastened the few blocks to work and rode the elevator, he kept trying to salvage the lost idea or fact. But then his first meeting demanded that he cope amiably with Richard Trefil, a surgeon who insisted on devising tax strategies of his own that managed to be both convoluted and doltish. Daniel emerged from the hour with his annoyance barely suppressed. He walked Dr. Trefil to the elevator and returned to his desk only to find that his next appointment had been canceled.

He allowed himself to go out to the front desk, where a new secretary was floundering with her tasks. In her dark-eyed, svelte presence he quickly found himself beginning to flirt. When he caught a wave of availability starting up in the girl, he saw what he was doing. With a sly, double-edged remark to oil his departure, he fled to his office. He wanted a sympathetic, compatible, male mind, which led him to Arthur. Soon Daniel was leaning back in his chair, his feet on the windowsill where he kept nudging the toe of his shoe into a vase, perversely tipping it to point where its balance could be lost. Then he would save it. With Arthur on the speakerphone, Daniel was rambling away, trying to be amusing. Every now and then he heard the click of a golf ball followed by a wisecrack from Arthur’s new talking putting mat. “Bet you can’t do that again,” said the weird little voice. “Way to go, big guy. Hey, you must be ready for the tour.”

“Wait a minute,” he said to Arthur.

“What?”

He sat up in his chair, his feet slamming to the floor as if to set himself physically for the opposition a part of him knew he was about to meet. ‘sell,” he said. For a second, he didn’t even know what he was talking about.

“Sell what? Oh, no. Not the pharmaceuticals.”

“How much am I up?”

“I don’t know exactly–eight or ten thousand. But the indicators are all good. This thing has legs. It’s not even close to peaking.”

“It’s over, Arthur. Sell.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, you’re not going to do this to me again.”

“And if you put anything of your own in, get it out now.”

“This is nuts! It’s idiotic. It’s totally, categorically unprofessional.”

“Just do it!”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. But it’s my money!”

Two days later, the stock started to plummet and Arthur sounded shrill and slightly enfeebled, like he was coming down with the flu, when he called to declare that Daniel had saved their mutual ass, and did he want to switch jobs with him. “You have to tell me how you did it. Not now. I couldn’t take it now. But some day. When I’m feeling a little more indestructible than I am just at this instant.”

Daniel was laughing as the door to his office appeared to vanish and a towheaded boy, a toddler in a blue T-shirt and shorts, glided into the room with Melissa behind him and then disappeared in a gleam of light, the residue leaping back into Daniel’s eye. He felt anointed, touched with clairvoyance, as he filled with potency so vast he knew that everything in his life was going to change for the best. When he called Melissa to tell her about the money, he didn’t mention what he’d seen, but it made him feel petty and selfish to exclude her, and so he ended the conversation with the words, “Listen. It’s going to be all right. It is.” They both knew the point he was making.

“Do you think so?” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

His mood was extreme, the aftereffects of the transaction leaving him so juiced he couldn’t work and he went rattling around his office, teasing secretaries and making risky, inappropriate remarks to clients on the phone. It was clear that he was going to do himself more harm than good if he stayed at work, but he didn’t really know where to aim himself. He headed out for an early lunch, hoping to convert his mood into something a little less audacious, a little more utilitarian. As he stood before the elevator, asking himself in a half-facetious voice who or what he should conquer next, up popped Otto Weber, his face like a goldfish against the glass of its bowl. Daniel directed his secretary to call Otto and to keep calling every fifteen minutes until she had him on the phone. Using another line, he ordered some takeout from the corner deli, and by the time he was finished she had reached Otto. Daniel felt like a dog salivating over fresh meat as Otto eagerly agreed to meet at the tennis club for a rematch. Though Daniel’s tone was amiable, the fact that his invitation was a challenge was not lost on either of them. As Otto rose to the bait, Daniel could feel each individual pump of his heart.

Otto started strongly, the initial points developing into complex struggles. But by the end of the second game, a subtle shift was evident. The force of Daniel’s ground strokes started to take command. His topspin was heavy, the bounce high, his approach shots exact. The third and fourth games went by at an increasing speed, unforced errors and a desperate uncertainty infecting and eroding Otto’s style. Suddenly, the set was over with a 6-1 score. Otto drank some water and plucked his racket’s strings. He put his ear against them and made a discovery about their tension. Scrutinizing Daniel, he threw out several radical observations on the current real estate market. Then he jumped to the subject of Melissa, inquiring somberly. Daniel grinned and strode back onto the court, leaving Otto with no option except to follow.

When Daniel opened the second set, playing serve and volley, Otto was startled and confused. Daniel’s first serve was a laser into the Har-Tru. The ball erupted from a gray puff of dust with overwhelming height and spin. Every volley was delivered with a geometric precision that landed well out of Otto’s reach and left him gaping and offended as if Daniel were cheating. At match point, Otto was serving. After making a brisk return that put Otto at an immediate disadvantage, Daniel started moving Otto from one corner to the other. Daniel felt he could do anything he wanted and keep it up forever. Otto was gasping and stabbing at the ball, sending up weak defensive lobs. With almost any shot, Daniel could have delivered a game-ending blow but, instead, he stroked the ball to a point that was just within Otto’s reach. Otto was like a trained animal, his maximum effort delivering him to the ball just in time to pop it high across the net. Daniel chased Otto around, goading him until he was nothing but mangled ego and fading legs, his breath a miserable bleating. From Daniel’s vantage, the ball was slow and huge as it floated to the point where it must meet his rising racket, and he wished the baby were there to see him. A little boy to witness Daniel’s firm wrist, his low-to-high stroke riding a fluid transfer of weight. To admire his prowess. The ball knifed into the corner, and Otto staggered and toppled onto his belly with a grunt like a baby about to cry. Bearing witness to his own dominance, Daniel filled with the adulation of a child.

* * *