Florence thinks she hears the doorbell while watching Wheel of Fortune. She goes to greet her visitor, but there’s no one, just the white glare of her empty driveway and the drone of mowers pushed by shirtless teenage boys. Florence closes her door slowly. She never feels lonely, except when she expects to see another person and doesn’t.
On television, the wheel is turning. Mina Marshall, a single mother from Council Grove, Kansas, guesses the letter R. Florence has noticed that women usually pick R first.
The audience’s applause sounds like feedback through the old television speakers.
Mina Marshall’s hair is piled on top of her head like a beehive. She is laughing, seemingly at nothing. The wheel is turning again, its clicks slowing, stopping on ten grand.
“G,” Mina says.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Florence says. “What a choice. What a terrible choice!”
At three o’clock, Florence gets her favorite cane, the one with a gold fox-head grip, puts on her biggest pair of sunglasses, and prepares to walk across the street to Marcella’s. Marcella is seven years older than Florence. Her dented, doughy face is warm and comforting to everyone, even Charlie, the mailman. Charlie rarely looks people in the eye, especially the elderly women—Florence thinks he’s afraid of disappointing them, that his own mother was impossible to please. Charlie seems to have always just gotten into a fight, sporting black eyes and cuts by his nose and mouth. But Charlie doesn’t mind looking at Marcella directly, his face softening at her pursed, pale-pink smile and gentle expression. He always says, “Good day, then.” And Marcella always says, “Alright, then.”
Marcella, like Florence, has no children or grandchildren, but she’s always looking forward to things, ready to discover what life hasn’t given her yet. Marcella is Florence’s best friend. Florence trusts her, wants to be like her, to learn. Marcella’s old-age dementia, her forgetfulness, seems to Florence like a strength. As women without much to show for, they’re better off not to dwell on memories.
But when Florence opens her front door to go to Marcella’s for their afternoon visit, there’s a basket on her porch. A white basket, shaped like half an eggshell, cradling something hidden by several pink blankets blistered with tiny fuzzballs. Florence bends down to lift the blankets. A baby, who looks to be no more than eight to ten months old, is sleeping. Florence pulls back quickly, and a gust of wind blows into her ear as if the earth had timed it this way.
Florence stands there, eyes up, searching around her head as if the baby had asked her a specific question. Her cane slips from her grasp and clangs on the cement.
The startled baby opens its eyes, and seems to release a particular smell upon awakening. A baby smell—powder, lemon-water, newness. The baby’s small, round head makes Florence assume it’s a girl. Every boy baby she’s ever seen has had an uneven, thick skull, a clunkiness to it, which makes perfect sense, she thinks—men always seem to need a bit more help in acclimating gracefully to a new environment.
“Well, for land’s sake,” Florence says. “What a sweetheart. This must be a mistake.”
She bends down again to lift the baby from the basket, surprised at how little her lower back protests. Her left arm supports the baby, while her right hand sits under the baby’s arm. The baby’s skin is next to her skin, smooth pink near stormy veins. The familiarity is illogical, the muscle memory, impossible, but Florence feels in her proper place to be holding this child at this very moment. She wonders if a cutout the shape of her body has been following her around all these long years, and she has just never before stepped into it. These thoughts, high and light in her head, are lassoed back down as quickly as they appear, back to the center, where a more reasonable conversation exists.
This is a baby, she thinks. This is not my baby.
Florence taught piano lessons for thirty years, beginning immediately after her husband Forest died from a heart attack. Could it have been an old student who left this child? Her students are among the few people other than Marcella who know that she is still alive, let alone what her address is. Some students, Florence remembers, were already crazy when they were six years old. Some were the kind of nice that is impossible to keep up, the kind of nice that ends up flipping after a certain age. Some were almost exact replicas of their parents, down to the colors of their outfits, which has the potential to ignite some sort of identity crisis or rebellion. But who would have it in them to ditch a baby on her porch? Florence unravels the images of memorable students as the baby falls asleep on her shoulder. Daren Blankenship, the boy who wore only dragon tee shirts and had a chronic cough? Bentley Parks with her dirty hands and her tears and complaints? Or Mara Scott and her tucked-in shirts and reflective barrettes, her numb, gray eyes, her sweet, quiet fingers pressing the keys so lightly that sometimes they didn’t sound?
The baby’s hair is light, not red and not brown but somewhere in-between. She has a wide nose and big eyes. Florence can’t assign the baby with confidence to anyone she’s known.
The inside of Florence’s house is behind her—the brown recliner, the stack of newspapers she doesn’t throw out so she can seem as if she keeps up with the world, if only to herself, the bear and doll collection on her couch that watches her exist, the olive-green telephone on the kitchen wall with which she should call the police. It all seems unappealing, like the standard box of eight crayons that’s never enough color for anyone. The baby hasn’t cried, she thinks. The baby is sleeping. I’m a good person. I’ll show the baby to Marcella. I’ll show Marcella, then call the police.
Florence carries the sleeping baby across the street.
Marcella opens the screen door. Her white hair is in a round mass on top of her round face.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” Marcella says. Her voice projects as if Florence is still across the street.
Marcella holds her breath momentarily after realizing the picture of Florence approaching is different. The baby stirs, kicking its legs at Florence’s blouse, at her withered breasts.
“Florence,” Marcella says. “Florence.” She laughs. Her face brightens even more than usual. She reaches for the baby, who’s blinking now, settling into a new scene. They make the transfer. The diaper crinkles as Marcella bounces the baby in her arms. Florence has never seen Marcella smile with such abandon, a flare of her true self, as if she has unzipped whatever suit she’d stepped into when her mind started to go. Florence can feel a suit of her own—thick and confining—like what you wear on the moon.
“What a blessing,” Marcella says, her face an inch away from the baby’s, both sets of eyes stunned by the closeness. “Yes, you! Yes, you!”
As if in a staged production, Florence feels the spotlight has moved from her to Marcella. And, as a performer would, Florence remains completely still in the shadows while Marcella’s burst of joy is the focus of whoever is watching.
They both step inside. The fan in Marcella’s livingroom is off. The air is humid, almost creamy, and smells like sugar. Marcella lays a blanket down and puts the baby girl on her stomach. The baby still hasn’t cried.
They discuss. Marcella nods, rubbing the baby’s back while Florence relays what she knows: “I walked out, and there she was.”
Marcella continues to nod. “Alright, then,” she says. “There’s only one thing to do.”
Charlie stomps up the two front steps. He puts a letter in the mailbox, peering into the screen door at Marcella, Florence, the baby and her coos and spit-bubbles.
“Good day, then,” he says, but more slowly, like a question, the pitch of his voice lifting at the end. And then he turns and walks away.
“Beh!” says the baby.
“The good Lord puts things and people in our life for a reason,” Marcella says.
Florence imagines a place for God to stand, an upper, inaccessible level, where He stands and points. “Cue Wheel of Fortune!” “Cue Florence walking to Marcella’s!” “Insert baby!” “Insert joy!”
“Pastor Bob,” Marcella continues. “Pastor Bob will know what to do.”
Marcella can no longer drive, so Florence leaves the baby in Marcella’s care while she goes out to buy essential things—car seat, diapers, baby food.
“How old is your grandchild?” a young stockgirl at the local supermarket asks.
“Just under a year,” Florence says, careful not to attach a question mark.
The girl stops stocking shelves and follows Florence around the store, talking nonstop: This supermarket has everything, everything a grandmother could possibly need! and Here, this is optimal for ten months, and Is she teething? and The shoulder bag for moms and g’mas on the go, and I’ll help you out to the car even though it’s not my job, I love babies, I love them! and, finally, Have a nice day!
On the drive back, Florence turns the rearview mirror down so that it reflects only her. At every stoplight, she looks up, focuses on the spot on her cheek where Forest always kissed hello and goodbye; she smiles the way she would if he were kissing it now. Forest had healthy, thick sperm. She remembers it tasting sharp, full of potential life. She imagines her eggs were dark, flaky things that tried to hide in her inner walls. Forest had been able to get her pregnant, but her body kicked it out not once, but four times. And every time she would cry and beg him to see her as a vibrant and fertile woman, hoping that maybe by looking at her hard enough, Forest might turn whatever tube was crooked inside her.
After her miscarriages, after Forest’s death, Florence quickly outgrew the desire to share her life.
Florence pulls into Marcella’s driveway. She immediately realizes the main door, in addition to the screen door, is closed. Marcella has left.
Florence goes to the door anyway. It is unlocked.
“Marcella,” she calls, but the house is completely still.
The clock is not ticking and, since it’s not her house, Wheel of Fortune is not on. There is nothing to distract her from the feeling of her blood quickening under her loose skin, nothing to turn her away from the prickling moment. Marcella, Florence thinks. Marcella and her forgetfulness? No. Marcella and her degenerative disease. Dementia. Marcella and her dementia.
“How could I have done this,” Florence says. “What a quack. You’re a quack, Florence.”
Florence’s words roll out in an ivory scroll in front of her face. The scroll disappears. But the words are still there behind her eyes, in strange dark lettering on every blink. Her breathing picks up. A fuzzy set of fingers move in her throat.
Marcella doesn’t have a car, and Florence knows she would have seen her walking or collapsed from the heat on the sidewalk, the baby and the blanket spilled next to her, suffering in the smack of direct sunlight. The baby that was left on my porch, Florence thinks. My porch. The baby left in my care. Given to me by the grace of God.
The phone, Florence thinks. Marcella would have had to call someone.
Like Florence, Marcella has a phone hanging on the wall of her kitchen. Hers is yellow. And, as expected, it’s off the cradle and face-up on the counter. Florence puts it to her ear. There is no dial tone. There is no voice on the other end. She can smell Marcella’s stale, syrupy breath. She presses Redial.
It’s Pastor Bob.
“I’m so sorry, Florence. My gosh. Marcella and I are discussing the situation now. She said we should expect you soon. Yes, please, do come over.”
Florence thinks of Marcella in the livingroom with the baby after she left. How it probably only took her brain a few seconds to change its course, processing each moment as if the last moment never happened.
Pastor Bob lives in a tree-lined neighborhood in a house provided by the church. His black truck is parked in the middle of the long driveway, and Florence imagines Marcella trying to open her door before the truck was completely stopped. Florence peeks inside the truck before going in, checking for a car seat. There isn’t one.
There is a knocker, a lion’s head, on the front door. Florence uses the fox’s head of her cane to knock. The animals stare at each other with their mouths open.
Marcella opens the door and hugs her. Florence returns the hug, patting Marcella’s plushy back.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asks. “Pastor Bob is going to help us find her family. Her family’s probably looking for her. She has a family, a family that loves her. Pastor Bob thinks it must be a teenage mother.”
Marcella is smiling, but her eyes are strained, holding back something real. She never had children, by choice. And now Florence wonders if dementia is Marcella’s biological way of coping, so she doesn’t have to bear the knowledge that her body evolved at a different rate than her desires. Florence also wonders about the possible teenage mother—the weight of a new set of bones growing inside her, the grief of cutting the umbilical cord, knowing that’s it, she’s not ready, she can’t handle the rest.
Pastor Bob is sitting on his big sectional couch, holding the baby. Marcella asks for another chance to hold her. But Florence feels it’s her turn. They both shuffle over to the couch and stand over Pastor Bob and the baby, pleading for their turn. Pastor Bob is holding the baby tighter against his chest.
The baby is crying now.
Florence can’t take her eyes from the baby’s. She’s thinking about growth, the human body, and how it really seems backward once you reach the end. How her body feels as if it’s too tired to hold the experiences she’s acquired, and that, maybe, if bodies got smaller again, there would be less pressure to try.
Marcella sits down eventually and accepts that her time with the baby has passed. Florence continues to stand, arms held out for the baby, suspended with a longing she can’t quite remember how to handle, a longing that has reawakened in a matter of hours. She can smell Forest’s musky aftershave, feel his grizzly white mustache on her neck.
Pastor Bob stands and puts his hand on Florence’s sunken, bony shoulder.
“I see it’s difficult for you to let go,” he says.
Marcella will die six years later. Florence and Pastor Bob will be present. And Pastor Bob will repeat these words to Florence as they stand over Marcella’s soulless, rigid body, as Florence struggles not to scream.
“I see it’s difficult for you to let go.”
A few years after that, Florence will see Pastor Bob thinking these words during a sermon, a week after his wife leaves him for another man, another pastor.
Florence will realize they’re all meant to experience certain things.
At night, when she’s completely still, Florence will feel her body glow. She will feel tiny green orbs under her skin. All the love she felt and still feels for Forest, their failed pregnancies, inside her, zipping through her blood.