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The AdoptionJon Roemer

I've watched others and seen what they were after. Prison adoptions. Cambodian adoptions. A movement among Quakers to embrace infant crocodiles freshly flushed into city sewers. The other day, I saw a woman at Walgreen's, her arms wrapped around a spare fichus, she was whispering sweet nothings, humming a sunny "Ave Maria." All for selfless reasons, I'm sure, if not also others. Giving is about getting even when it's not.

And then today I saw a man sitting alone with just a book. He sat in the corner, with a cup of tea, his face red. It was a large picture book full of cakes and sherbets and ice cream pie wedges. Gorgeous. Dripping. Magnificently lit.

I'd just come from my son's swim meet. Things had gone not well. From the bleachers beside the pool, you could see the growing stretch, stroke after stroke, the distance between my boy and the others more and more defined by the other parents' cheering, their wild giddy hooting. Once again, it is my boy's laggard pace that makes the others look good.

I'm not saying I went in for adoption because my own boy couldn't make the grade. But this whole swimming thing, it's really opened my eyes. Another boy, a second chance. It's about getting one myself. My own slice of pie, if you will.

When the woman at the agency asked me why, I told her: "To make a real difference. To bring real change to another person's life. To truly, deeply, better the course of another's soul's path." And some of this she even jotted down.

We rattled through a baseline battery of questions. Finances, family histories, our own marital functioning. "High," I said. "We're high functioning."

"Happy," my wife answered. "We're happy." And Sally probably is both. Both high and happy.

"And your son?"

"Full of life."

"Like a tank."

"Full of life," Sally repeated, waiting for the woman to write down her exact words. On a form maybe, in a box somewhere, in a space reserved only for Sally.

The woman, behind her desk, closed a folder, then another. "OK. I can see where this is going. We'll need to meet your son too, of course. Is this a problem?"

We agreed, in unison, as if this was entirely expected. And she gave us a sharp look before rifling through her calendar.

She ran her fingers through her hair, a short bob, rather girlish, but then stopped and scratched kind of madly at her scalp. Her face had real weight to it, some gravity, some seriousness, like she kept her impatience stored under her eyes and in her jowls.

"In private," she said. "A basic interview. Nothing to worry about."

"Absolutely." I even proposed the next week.

"Right before regionals?" she asked. "Are we sure about that?" Like we must surely know better, like this was more than she could handle. As if we were a couple of delinquents, two strays out looking for a home of our own. I looked to Sally. But she had her grin locked in, she was eyeing those folders, the ones with presumably both of our names.

"Whenever," I said. "Whenever you think is best."

And with that, she was done with us. We were out of there. Dismissed. "OK," she said. "If that's how it's going to be." She stood at the door, and we filed out past her, out into the bright sunny day.

The agency had come recommended by our church. Our church had come recommended by our neighbors. Our neighbors had a nephew in our own son's class. An overlapping of concerns, a real smallness to things. I even recognized Ms. Pomoda, this agency woman. Mid-fifties. Cardigan sweaters. Librarian's half-glasses. Unmarried. Married to her work. Part of the swim meet crowd. She likes to stand up mid-race and bleat one of those Coast Guard horns, the ones they use to get your attention a mile away. Ferocious about swimming. Doesn't even have kids. Still, she knows envy and disappointment and what it's like to go home hoarse.

At the door, she let Sally pass, but she stopped me briefly. She looked at me. With spinster suspicion. "I'm watching you, mister."

"Well, thank you," I said. Because I wasn't like Sally. Her nervous insistence, her concern for appearances. "Thank you very much," I said. Because somehow I'd already screwed this all up.

And outside, my wife, she just beamed.

My boy. We don't make any big claims on each other. We don't behave badly. We're just two men with different expectations, different goals, that's all. He has no girlfriends, he never talks about dating. He seems content to go to practice, work the weights, and then hit the water like a salamander on steroids. Like a bingeing bottom-feeder. Like he forgets how to float, and then dawdles down there, scrambling on all fours, a sunken, slippery amphibian crawl. Then come the backslaps, and the towel snaps, as the other boys collect their Saturday morning ribbons. Oh, he's a jovial one. A real sport. Always hugging and cheering the other boys on. I don't say a word. I don't push the boy, heavens no. We hug, we nod, we get in the car. Then it's space travel, ethics, the history of Mongolia. His one-sided banter, all the way home. Like a babbling four-year-old. Like nothing just happened, like he's got endless energy, and winning is losing and losing is winning, to him it's all just the same.

But this isn't about the boy. That huge hunk of muscle, with every advantage. No, this is about swimming. And all I've learned from swimming. The watery blurred frenzy, our scattered affections. The way those old bleachers soak the seat of your pants.

I have my own business. I share it with a partner. We are middlemen, wholesalers. We get word from a few manufacturers, specialists in certain gourmet concerns, then turn around and convince local shops they can move this stuff with a backhoe. Fine chocolates. Rich candies. Dried and spiced things, too. Mostly, a lot of bunk.

"Tilt your head back, close your eyes, and open wide." Our sampling method. "Exactly the way y'all should go through life." Bill has a Southern lisping drawl, which he uses, to my ear, just to sound different. A few mornings a week he shows up in bad shape, like he's been up, wide-open, eyes closed, most the night. And yet Bill's the real force behind our operation. Somehow Bill manages a broader reach, more mobile interests. "Anything that moves," Bill likes to tell me. "Anything that moves -- wholesale," he'll say. I'm usually on the phone, he's ranting across the room. He keeps his distance most mornings, keeps his shades on, too. "It's all about packaging. Everybody likes a nice package." And then he'll fall quiet for maybe an hour or so. Sitting up, behind his desk, behind his sunglasses, dozing off. A lot of days, he won't even move much before lunch. A large man, thick, with flat, blond features, he's just very big, propped up there that way. A steady nose-breathing seems to keep him in place.

"Macadamias. From Arizona." He rolls his eyes. "Middle of the desert. Hydroponics." He stands over my chair now and hovers with a sample. "Rich. Delicious. From just a puddle in the sand." Then he's chewing it himself, kind of loudly, kind of proudly. "Very lah-dee-dah." He holds another between his teeth, as if I'm supposed to take it from there. It's afternoon, Bill's back from lunch, and already, it's nuts, nuts all over again. He spits several straight up, nut-juggling with his tongue. Then with two more, he holds them over his big eyes, his enormous nostrils, his wide nipples, his ears.

I admire the man's range, and I've imagined switching places, the kind of force a man like Bill could bring home every night. Sally would probably snap out of her stupor with an insatiably curious me in the house. And the boy might even find his way across a pool; some of Bill's focus could maybe rub off. Bill reads from the can now, he chews dramatically. "'Desert Pearls.' They save the rainforests -- and a portion of the proceeds go toward further research in desert-puddle macadamia-growing." He gasps, he covers his crotch. "The little nuts that could."

I close my eyes. I tilt my head back. I hear Bill working over yet another. I get distracted by the sloppy splashing of the desktop mini-fountain. And the noise of the punks downstairs, in front of the karate shop. Their car radios, their shouting back and forth. We're on the second floor of a small, mostly empty retail strip, but inside, our office is casually Japanese. Strategically textured. Minimalist and dimmed. At the end of the day, we've gotten into the habit of taking a little Port, pulling our chairs around to the mat between our desks, one Bill brought back from Thailand, and together, we wind down from all the phone calls and horseplay. We put Mozart on. We talk about headlines, events, passionately, as if it all mattered. Bill is against the idea of adoption. But Bill is against kids in general. Kids have done terrible, unthinkable things to Bill's Pontiac. Little parking lot scuffles. Briefly threatening encounters. Squawking squabbles over noise, ambition, the sanctity of the afternoon. Those punks, Bill contends, have no real engagement, no real business with the martial arts. "We talk about life as a series of tests, but nobody ever says what we should do with the ones who aren't passing." Of course we all do, we talk about exactly that all the time, but this late in the day, Bill says things just to hear how they sound.

Then he puts on my tongue some dazzling confection and just so easily I'm convinced, again, that we can make and get all that life ever asks of us.

I open my eyes, I chew, I moan. Probably moaning and chewing through the last of our profit margin -- just the smallest competitor in this small-time business, and our little boats would be totally sunk. And with Bill just watching me now, distracted, nibbling another himself. The autonomy of things, unbridgeable schisms, it's that kind of thing that weighs on his head. But I have to make noises. Those desert nuts are delicious. Despite everything, Bill really does have the magic touch.

Ms. Pomoda, from the agency, she's found me in the bleachers. "One one-hundredth of a second. What is that? What can you tell me about one one-hundredth of anything?" The first Saturday morning since our meeting at her office, the first time all season she's talked to me in the stands. She is outraged, she is sweaty. Before the race is even started.

"Well, I'm not really familiar with split-second mechanics."

"For crying out loud, that's a load of crap."

And right away, nice people, well-dressed people, on the bleacher bench below us, they turn round with genuine concern.

Ms. Pomoda, it turns out, is a Saturday-morning institution, a well-established fixture, no less than a respected arbiter of dubious team seeds. The bleachers' own time-keeper, a selective odds-maker, her spirited participation can make or break the day's tone. This morning, I've watched how she crisscrosses the stands, in pressed jeans, that same cardigan, and white canvas slip-ons. She carries a small notepad and an old man's handkerchief, which she drops and asks a young father to fetch. A sweaty, distant man in his weekend work clothes, old shorts, a torn t-shirt, he's been mowing or trimming or working in the dirt. The father bends over, and through her thick reading glasses, she checks out the calves, the thighs, the reach of his arms. With mothers, she can be steely. Tempting their weakness. After innocuous talk of weather and salad dressings, more than one breaks down and asks what she thinks. Does their boy have a shot? Is he going all the way? No nonsense, unflinching, she has only one answer: "Breeding, dear. Breeding is everything." Like it's destiny that makes us all sit here and sweat.

"But you, sir," she says to me, "you are a pile of crap-ola." She unbuttons a second button under her cardigan, and with her old handkerchief, she wipes her neck. "You're just plain crap."

"Oh, I don't know if I'd go so far as -- "

"Crap," she says. "Crap, crap, crap," she says. Loudly, seriously. "One-hundred percent pure genuine crap from the old crap machine." With a steady perspiration starting to soak her shirt now, she takes off her Cougar cap and fans herself, rapidly. She refuses the space next to me, she just stands there, sweating bullets, judge and jury, in white canvas casual slip-on shoes.

The first Saturday meet since our abrupt office meeting, the first time we've really met here face to face, and I can't help but notice she smells faintly odd. Faintly antique. She's not so much older, but at home, I can smell it, there's camphor, romance novels and boxes of stale tea. Bitter is how she smells. From lost loves, lost authority, an aging social worker's foiled ambitions. None of which I want to challenge or upset.

"Just like your boy. Am I right? Finished before he's started?" She nods to the pool, to my boy standing there. "Like father, like son? Am I right? Are you with me?"

Because everyone else clearly is. Everyone else is up to speed. Every team parent, every visiting-team parent, fragments of families from way across town, they all lean closer now, gleaning the gist, at least, of Ms. Pomoda's rampage: me, my fatherhood, my feigned ignorance of team standings. We all grab our seats when the start buzzer sounds.

Like a doomed submarine, like a fully inflated life raft without a purpose, out of nature, right away, my boy is concrete. I try not to let it get to me, I try playing it cool, but the humidity, the raised temperature, you can't help but sweat. And right beside me is Ms. Pomoda, making terrible gnarling noises. Grunting, growling. Profanities, obscenities. Her private prayers made public, beseeching God's genitalia, until the last boy, my boy, finally paddles in.

She wears a stopwatch on a chain, with her glasses, around her neck. "Oh, I can't see straight. Can you see what the time is?" She leans over now, her full and sweaty bosom planted right in my face.

"Yes. Yes, I can. It's ten-thirty. Ten-thirty-two," I tell her. And then I feel my own sweat, on the tip of my chin. We both watch it drop, directly, on Ms. Pomoda, onto her exposed and bare chest just inches away.

"Holey moley," she whispers. Aching, sighing, expelling her desire with butterscotch breath.

"Adoption, huh." Bill hesitates here. A different Bill. Our Pastor Bill. His name is Bill, too. An irreverent reverend, always ready with a jab, quick with the put-downs, because what he has to say, he'll say anyway, so right now he says, "Isn't adoption just for loser impotents?"

"Now, Bill..."

"Christian charity. I meant to say Christian charity." And he laughs, from his gut, grabbing my hand, real keen, like he knows no worse punishment than a good man's private thoughts. Pastor Bill. Always dressed for the course, keeps his clubs in his trunk, he's got a wife, somewhere, off doing her own thing. There are rumors about him. About his portfolio, mostly, his hand-picked stocks' performance, the kind that would make Matthew, Luke, Mark and John all pick up the phone and call Charles Schwab. Most days, he's on the links by four. It's widely known he gets his sermons off motivational tapes. The guy manages all this -- plus weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospitals -- and still talks about salvation, admonition and the perfect tax strategy, all with the same straight face. "What I meant to say was, That's great. Really. The selfless act of adoption is very much the will of God as embodied in the life of Jesus Christ."

"Really?" Sally asks. "Jesus Christ?" she asks. "But would it still count if we weren't thinking about it that way?"

"Would it count. Of course it counts."

"I thought so," Sally says. Fidgety, nervous, like she's really got something to pray about. "As soon as you said it, I thought it would count."

I watched Pastor Bill deal with her earlier. She'd slipped out early and stood at the door after services, handing out little note cards, frilly messages of inspiration, something, I don't know, no bigger than your average business card -- but in Pastor Bill's exact spot. By the time he caught up with her, he took her arm, kind of roughly. "Everybody loves a go-getter" -- under his breath, obviously miffed -- "but that only means somebody, somewhere, is going to lose out." He invited us both for a little talk in his office. We broke the adoption news, he covered the charity angle, but now Pastor Bill looks seriously irked. "Oh, it counts, Sally. God's watching. He's always watching."

"I thought so."



"Unless this adoption thing has anything to do with your own boy."

Together, we watch Sally gasp. She has trouble breathing, she starts digging for a tissue, huffing and puffing, trying compose herself. Pastor Bill pushes his chair back. He won't look at either of us. Then, with the pointy end of a golf tee, he starts to pick at the little space between his front teeth.

"So this has nothing to do with your boy..." Pastor Bill says.

"We love our boy," Sally says, almost choking.

"Well, good," he says. "Good," he says. "That's very good to hear, Sally." Playing preacher, going on now, leaving aside the dental hygiene. "Because we can't be too cautious. Can't be too careful. Our most precious commodities." And then he talks about long-term growth potential as a model for Christian faith. He goes on like this, pairing equities with sacraments, while his own boy, a true dullard, a real monster of casual delinquency, his own boy usually places a solid second, at least. Pastor Bill, he's there, poolside, in the bleachers. But he has no idea. To sit there every time expecting last place.

He takes a moment now. A prayerful, searching moment. "Regional tournament next week." He fingers the cross over his neatly pressed golf shirt. "A shock like that, a good kick in the pants." He flashes me a sly, hole-in-one grin. "Maybe move you up to third..."

"We love our boy more than Ruth loved Esther," Sally says now, still shocked, near tears, not making sense either, but her lip is still trembling, and her voice is still cracking, so Pastor Bill backs off. She looks sorry enough, in a new dowdy dress, fresh off the rack, still showing the store's boxy folds. Her hair looks as if it's a poorly made wig, and her makeup is as smeared as if God himself took aim and spit. And I've sat here, quietly, through the whole thing. I know where this was going. My wife is never so sorry. She is doggedly happy. And as Bill turns round for a fresh box of Kleenex, Sally slips a small stack of those business cards onto the good pastor's desk. Sally, through the tears, she always gets her way.

The boy is waiting for us outside the church office. Thumbing the statuary. He's checking out the thigh work on a concrete figure. Sandals, a short robe, eyes lifted toward the weather, about as SoCal as a saint can get. The boy says he needs some protein before we head home, so we walk next door to the Wendy's. A quiet procession, the boy first, then me, then the wife. Even back in the car, no chatter, no rambling. Just chewing, grazing, a steady crumpling of sandwich wrappers. A rare solemnity. Because most days, when we're alone, when he's left to his own thinking, the boy has a mind of borderless flight.

"Have you and Mom ever thought about turning Muslim?" "Did you know that some men actually lactate?" "Would you rather have your past all sorted out or your future totally secure?" Stellar grades, top percentiles, and yet the boy shows every sign of a shipwrecked mind. This stuff just comes out of him. A continuous spewing. No accounting, no filtering. Just adrift, in the backseat, staring off into middle space. "If you had to be fair about it, would you rather get paid for your own natural talents or make a living off of some skill you mastered, like, over your whole life?" No one asks these kinds of things. Because no one knows the answers. But answers have never been the boy's real interest.

I imagine he caught a glimpse outside the sanctuary. His mother and Pastor Bill, her total humiliation. And now, after his third or fourth sandwich, he swallows hard, he clears his throat, like he's about to get started, like he's caught a second wind, but we end up riding quietly, as a nice quiet family. In the rearview, there's that look, that look of fast-food reflection, that blank look of wanting more, vaguely, even as the grease from the fries starts to settle in.

We're dropping him off at practice. But Sally first, at the printer's. More business cards. A new batch. This time with careful borders of tiny fleur-de-lis. Before this, it was tap lessons for a school fundraiser talent show, and before that, old-timey handicrafts for the shelter rummage sale. Last weekend, she preferred a seminar on urban planning over her own son's swim meet. I barely broached the subject: "Would you rather, say, show up for every insurmountable societal problem, or just have your conspicuous absence at your own family disaster mocked behind your back every week?" Kind of mimicking the boy there, but Sally didn't get it. "Affordable housing roundtables," she said and stepped out of her panties by the side of the bed. "I'm bringing lemon bars. And you know those things always run late." She climbed in and got started. Like clockwork, almost nightly. She grins when we fuck. Grins. Like the smile off of one of her own cheap porcelain craft projects. A bodiless conscience. She's a bake sale Bundt cake. She's a car wash soap bucket. Even now, after church and Pastor Bill's admonitions, clearly charging her with crimes much closer to my own, she's dried her eyes, she's downed her burger, she's put all suspicions behind her. "Just work," she says now. "I can't make it next Saturday. I've got appointments, honey. Work." Nothing more.

She is band candy. She is camp candles. She is ten-month subscriptions. And those business cards, tiny printed messages of inspirational conviction, something to slide onto trays at the food bank's dining hall, she'll distribute them with great devotion, and passion, and even cunning. If I know Sally, she'll do it every chance she gets. But then I see one of the cards, a stray one left behind: "Fine Chocolates. Exotic Spices. Sally's Nuts. Cheap!"

There is no more to life than knowing one's own standing. But at the curbside, outside the printer's, Sally's left us with no more than that blank, abject grin.

In the back, changing out of his church clothes, his bulky frame bumping up against the car's cramped confines, "Daddy," the boy says now, which has never sat well with me, not since he's gotten big, especially now that he's so big, "Daddy," he says again, back there, stripped down now, rummaging for his swim suit, he is an astronaut of metaphysical dimensions. In his own self-ascribed orbit. Too quick for me, a troubled mind of his own.

"If you had to lose everything," he says, "would you want it to be because, like, you didn't turn off the iron, or because you did something deliberate you couldn't ever undo?"

I have to remind myself. This is not about the boy. This is about the boy's triumph. The triumph of resignation. The space in the boy's head that lets him just sink.

He has arms like automatic weaponry, slick chambers full of sinew and bullets. Legs like cannons, water-repellent abs. Even the tops of his feet are shaved smooth. He used to have a reddish cowlick that worked Pavlovian on his mother, a hand-and-tongue reflex, some deep-seeded need for straight bangs. Now he has one of those shiny domes. Aerodynamic. You should see him shave his armpits. He looks like he shouldn't have to. But with one arm over his head, while the other works his razor, the muscles across his back, intricate, unmistakable, the training, the commitment, the drive, the talent. It's all there. It's all in him. It's in his face in the mirror. He uses one of his mother's blades and traces the concavity with a sculptor's steady hand.

At the start of the season, when I volunteered for team ribbons, there were bowed heads, there were pursed lips. Then Pastor Bill chimed in with his church discount, and I could feel the pressure in the room immediately subside. We all act like we have equal stakes, and to my face they talk about "doing good" as if they knew it well. Better. The kind of thing they'd taken out to dinner and the movies and fawned over how lucky they were to have found it. As if good knew no shame.

But then I get home, and the boy is sprawled on the couch. He breathes with his mouth open. His mother has already covered him. He looks like a drowning victim. He also looks like me. Dead tired is how the boy looks now. He pushes himself harder than anybody else on the team. But I wonder how much he's heard, if he gets crap in the locker room, if he already gets how this adoption thing reflects on him. Or on me. I have to remind myself, but even asleep he looks like he holds promises he can't keep.

"You've brought your boy." Ms. Pomoda sounds surprised. "I know your boy," she says. "He tries so hard." And her eyes are all over the boy just now. There's an awkward, distant moment, long enough to shuffle though the season's numerous and sorry disappointments. But then she sounds resolved: "Good. This is good. Can I talk to him in private? Just a few minutes." What she wouldn't give for an hour of private with that boy.

Sally pats the chair next to hers. "Loverbird. Sit next to me." She's already settled in, already flipping pages. Already, a stack of business cards beside the brochures and magazines. Appointments, she'd said. Work, she'd explained. She could have landed a gig as the new church secretary, or my own partner's gopher-coolie. She could double as a drug-running pastor's assistant, if she wanted. Anything, anything she wanted. But as close as I'm watching her now, for once, there's no grin.

"Look, honey," she says. "A book of kids," she says. And here the wheels pretty much come off.

We sit there in that windowless waiting room for what might have been hours. And I could have sat there for hours more. Just Sally and me, pouring over these kids' cases. The tiny ears, the funny grin, the ruddy cheeks. What to make of those bangs, what to do with that nose. And their eyes, all of them, wide open. It's something to look at children this way. And you know, the plainest faces, you just look that much harder, for something, anything, to make every kid something else.

But then our boy comes out of Ms. Pomoda's private office. He's flushed and smiling. But he won't look at me, like he's got something to hide. "That's some boy," Ms. Pomoda says. "That's really some... boy," she says. And she doesn't give me, or Sally, another look.

Like gold diggers, red-handed, we put the book down and follow the boy out. For better or worse, the boy knows our plans now. But in the car, on the way home, there's talk of Pakistan, of pre-Raphaelites. Of madness and genius. Of beards and fishes and all matter of things, things that could never be bought or sold or even given away. The boy will always lose and then lose again, and he is both of us and not.

The next Saturday, on my way to the boy's regionals, I go by the office. Our front door stands open, on a second-floor walkway, with a railing that looks out over the parking lot. Bill's out there, yelling, throwing things, shouting things, and the lot's already littered with wrapped chocolates, bags of nuts, and little packets of spiced mustards. Bill's Pontiac has already got it good, in the crossfire, mostly his own friendly fire, and the kids, they always throw the stuff back. But now a bunch of them have gotten upstairs, they're running across the second floor. They're on top of big Bill before he even knows it. Swinging punches, shoving him down, against the rail, and then over. His huge frame lands on the asphalt. He bounces, a little, and then rolls, a little. A swift one in the face. Kids kick him in the gut.

My thinking was this: I thought I'd stop by and pick up a little treat, a consolation prize. A box of rum chocolates. To remind my boy there's more out there. Proof that hard work, well applied, delivers its rewards.

But the kids aren't quick to scatter, and we end up getting into it. A lot of shoving and name-calling. I try rousing Bill, but the kids won't quit. They keep coming back for more. I knock down one boy, and he lands in orange marmalade. I pummel English toffies at another. I want to call the cops, but every time I leave Bill, the little vagrants regroup and swarm again. One young boy approaches in a karate suit and headphones, by himself, hands raised in surrender, professing to know first aid. When he gets close enough, I tackle and pin him. I grab a fistful of rum balls. Bunk, wholesale bunk, smeared all over his face.

When the cops finally come, I call Sally right away. She gets here just as the ambulance pulls in. She's calm, she's helpful. One of the kids has been crying. Sally's the one who pats him on the head. The police have a few questions about some of the kids' injuries, so it's Sally who climbs in the ambulance and sits beside Bill. He's knocked out, but still, as the ambulance doors close, Sally looks at me, baffled how any of this could happen.

She calls from the hospital, she's run into Pastor Bill. "I'm not saying we all get what we deserve," he's told her, "I'm just saying we should all exercise some caution." Sally calls me and tells me this. "We have to be cautious. Really, really cautious," she says. As if investment principles were gospel, as if fear were her real business, her true calling card.

I go to pick up the boy, before we hightail it to the hospital. The meet should be over, but the boy isn't out yet. No one is. It's still quiet in the parking lot behind the pool. I catch a look in the rearview, and I'm covered in police evidence. Dried blood, dried cranberries and little splotches of chutney. And then in the mirror, there's Ms. Pomoda, headed straight for me, chugging across the school parking lot.

I try ducking down, but I'm not quick enough. She's at my door window, wheezing, winded, fogging the glass. She's run a good distance and her breathing is sketchy. She leans with her forehead against side of my car. "You," she starts in, but she can't talk yet. "You," she tries again, her ample chest heaving, but she's still fighting between breathing and chewing me out.

"Listen," I say. "There's been an emergency. Real trouble. Trust me. I would've been here if I could."

She shakes her head, gasping. "Not you. Youth," she says finally. "Wasted," she adds then, and then a deep roar rises from out of the school.

The boy, the meet. I haven't missed it entirely. Another roar rises, the crowd going bonkers, and I scramble now to get out of the car.

But I slip on the gravel and get tangled on Ms. Pomoda. We struggle, we grapple, we both end up falling, the old woman face first in the loose stony ground. And when my legs start to work again, my head starts to fill now, with funny nuts and aching hangovers. Pelting mustards, Port and Mozart. Hydroponics. Maybe never another hydroponic as long as I live. I can feel my legs burning, I can feel my own power, hope, pride, another shot with the wife. Until Ms. Pomoda, in her white canvas slip-ons and tight-buttoned cardigan, catches up to me, passes me and then sprints on ahead.

I don't know how she does it. Yes, I do know, but it's freakish. She turns round and catches me in her wide open arms. She walks me back across the parking lot, she leads me over to her car now, to the back seat and Kleenex, which she licks and dabs at my shirt. She moves on to some blood stains, lower down, on my cuff, then she tugs at my pants and starts to paw me and bite me. I try to stop what she's doing. The biting, especially. But there's no stopping Ms. Pomoda. "Last place," she moans. "Last place."

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