Authors: Claire Lombardo
“Why don’t you tell Violet about that, J?” Hanna said. He looked to her, startled. She fit perfectly in the kitchen with her brown sweater and her messy crumpling of hair. She smiled at him. She was moving to South America.
“What?” he said. He looked to Violet.
“Your— Hanna was just telling me about your ceramics class.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s cool.”
?” Hanna asked, prodding him, nudging his foot with hers under the table. “Tell her about the Terra Fiesta exhibit.”
“Oh, it’s just.” He stopped, shook his head once so his hair hung over his eyes. “Just this thing they do where they put your stuff on display and people can—like, buy it if they want.”
“But tell Violet how they
whose pieces get displayed,” Hanna said.
“People vote,” he said.
votes,” Hanna said, turning to Violet. “Thirty-eight hundred students vote, and some faculty, and the person with the highest number of votes gets their work displayed at one of the biggest galleries in town.” It was actually the
gallery in town, but Hanna was good at making little things sound big.
“That’s incredible,” Violet said, and she seemed pretty again, brighter. “That’s— God, that’s huge. You must be— You should be so proud.”
“One of his mugs sold for twenty-five dollars,” Hanna said. He felt his face heating up.
“Amazing,” Violet said. “That’s wonderful. Do you have— I mean, I’d love to buy one.”
Hanna looked slightly troubled by this. Jonah watched her face for cues.
“We have a number that we— Honey, is there one of our mugs you might want to give Violet?” She turned to Violet. “We’re so lucky. He keeps us caffeinated. We’ll never run out.”
Until we move to Ecuador,
she did not say. He doubted his stupid mugs would make the cut. They were selling the house on Wisconsin Avenue and having a big garage sale for everything that wasn’t what Hanna called an
“Why don’t you pick one out, J?”
He shrugged, happy for an excuse to leave the table, and drifted to the cabinet where they kept the mugs. The red one was Terrence’s favorite, and Hanna liked the purple one, the one he’d given her for Mother’s Day. The rest were expendable, he guessed, but he was having trouble picturing Violet drinking from any of them. He chose a dark green one with a tiny chip on the rim and brought it over to her.
“Oh, wow.” She took it from him as though it were radioactive. “Oh, I couldn’t— This is so nice; let me at least give you— God, I must have— Here, please.” She had pulled out her wallet and was pressing two twenties in his direction. He looked to Hanna for guidance. She was watching them with what looked like anguish. He eyed the money. This was clearly one of those moments—those
as Hanna called them—where he was supposed to choose the right thing. But forty dollars was a lot to him, and Violet seemed pretty rich. Hanna would say those details were inconsequential. He reached over and took the money, pushing it into the pocket of his sweatshirt.
“Thanks,” he said. He’d add it to the bank account that Terrence had opened for him, dubbing it his emergency fund. He liked it because it implied that everything in his life wasn’t an emergency, that situations might arise where $326—now $366—could be a gateway to something instead of a depressing reminder of his meager existence.
” Violet said. He noticed that her hands were shaking; the light from the bulb in the ceiling fan glinted epileptically over the mug’s glaze. “It’s beautiful.”
He couldn’t look at Hanna. He went into another cabinet for the graham crackers.
“Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, Violet,” Hanna said after a minute.
“Oh, me,” Violet said. He faced her, tugging open a sleeve of crackers. “Well, there’s not a
lot to tell. I—I grew up around here. Not far at all, actually. Over on Fair Oaks and— Over on the north side.” He wondered if she was afraid to say her address. Hanna told him that when he wore his hood up he gave off the wrong vibe. “I went to Wesleyan for my undergrad and I got my JD from the U of C.” Hanna loathed people who spoke in acronyms.
“What does that mean?” he asked, loyally.
“I’m sorry,” Violet said, flustered. “I got a law degree from the University of Chicago.”
“Land of the overeducated and underaware,” he said, quoting Hanna. He watched both Hanna and Violet turn red.
Violet laughed. “Ouch,” she said.
“It’s a great school,” Hanna said, betraying him.
“You’re a lawyer?” he asked.
Violet turned redder. “I mean, technically. I don’t practice anymore.”
He’d already asked her about her kids, about the little brown-haired kid he’d seen with her in a photo on Google Images. And there was another, she’d told him, Eli, who was two and in preschool and played T-ball already. He knew her husband was some hotshot lawyer and she was, a direct quote,
in her sons’ lives. For Jonah, this translated to
I am never taking in some fucked-up kid in a hooded Stewie Griffin sweatshirt,
but Hanna still seemed hopeful. Lathrop House hadn’t been so bad. Sometimes they gave the high school kids their own rooms.
“My parents are still in the area,” Violet said, and he watched Hanna perk up. “My dad’s retired and my mom—she owns the hardware store over on—”
“Mallory’s?” Hanna said. “Oh, we love that place. Is she— She couldn’t be the—the blonde with the apron, the one with the dogs on it, the—”
“They’re Labradors,” Violet said. “Yes. Yes, that’s my mom. Listen, if you could—if you wouldn’t mind— I haven’t actually
her that— If you could just—”
Jonah watched Hanna deflate.
“Of course,” she said.
“Just for now.” Violet resumed twisting her rings. “And I’ve got three sisters.”
Hanna said. She called this phenomenon
“Catholics,” Violet said apologetically. “I mean, not
Catholics. Just run-of-the-mill, standard-issue, contraceptive-ignorant Catholics. None of the—you know, in
“Yeah, I’ve heard fucking without condoms is totally hereditary.”
It left his mouth before he had a chance to stop it. Hanna looked like she might cry. Violet did too, but it was harder to tell when people had brown eyes.
“Jonah,” Hanna whispered. She didn’t even bother to nudge him with her foot again. This was what she meant when she talked about self-sabotage, he guessed.
“No, it’s—it’s fine,” Violet said. “Fair point. It’s—absolutely fine. Listen, I— This has been— But I—I actually have to be going. You have my cell number. Call it—you know, whenever you’d like.” She rose. Hanna looked at him helplessly.
“Cool,” he said. “Thanks for the money.”
Violet studied him, adjusting her purse on her shoulder. “It was so nice to meet you.”
“You don’t have to
” Hanna said, rising too. He felt bad that she seemed so flustered. “He was just— We’ve got kind of a—an eclectic sense of humor around here, I guess.”
“Oh, it’s not that. I just have to go pick up the kids.”
“I’ll call you,” Hanna said desperately, and Violet nodded.
“Sure, please. Anytime.”
It seemed irreconcilably fucked up to him that he could be regarded as something to be “managed” simply because he’d been born to a mother who couldn’t handle having a kid and adopted by people who would quickly get annihilated by a viaduct. He hadn’t even known he was adopted until after she died, his mom with the soft red hair and the songs she sang at bedtime about being stuck inside with the Memphis blues. He hadn’t asked for any of this, in short, and so his patience was limited, and he wasn’t on board with what Violet Sorenson-Lowell had going on, with her pinchy face and her diamonds and her superiority.
“Honey, you should—say bye to Violet,” Hanna said.
“Nice meeting you,” he said. He felt her evaluating him. She’d forgotten her mug.
“You too,” she said. “Really.”
And he suspected, after the
that they’d never see her again.
he kindest word Violet could find to describe Jonah’s foster parents was
The mother, Hanna, was that aggressively crunchy kind of Oak Parker where you couldn’t tell if unkempt was a tepid political statement or an inevitable way of life. Terrence—who’d emerged, wearing a Matisyahu T-shirt, from a room off of the kitchen—stuck around only long enough to introduce himself and press his hands together in a yogic
Their house was small and cramped; the people next door had a pit bull chained to a tree in front. She was mere blocks from the fabled, elm-lined streets of her upbringing and yet she couldn’t help but hold her purse closer to her body as she waited at the front door. Once inside, she was guided by Hanna into a small, musty kitchen, walls adorned with vaguely vaginal-looking art and splotches of food.
“I’m an artist,” Hanna said when she saw Violet looking, and Violet nodded, stretched her face into a smile, hugged her rib cage. “Mixed media, usually, but I’m also interested in artisanal works from the third world.”
“Well, who isn’t,” she said, joking, realizing only when the words had left her mouth that she sounded derisive. “I mean—my husband brought me back this beautiful Nepalese bracelet from a business trip and I couldn’t get over the—you know. Intricacy.”
“What kind of work brought him to Nepal?”
She kept adjusting her expectations of how hot it was possible for her face to get. “He’s an attorney. Intellectual property. And he—well, he actually bought it in New York, but it was a—you know, fair trade. The proceeds…I’ll have to ask him.”
Hanna smiled and it relaxed her. She had been consistently calmed by the woman’s phone voice; it was what had coaxed her here in the first place.
We need your help,
she’d said, and Violet had always been powerless before such abject vulnerability.
“Are you ready to meet him?” Hanna asked.
“Am I— Sure. Of course. Yes, please.”
Hanna called out his name and Violet heard the dull thump of footsteps. It wasn’t until Jonah appeared at the foot of the stairs that she realized she’d been holding her breath.
He was beautiful, in a word. His posture was bad but his eyes were wide and handsome, his hair a russet-coffee color that she knew many of the Shady Oaks moms tried to replicate at the salon. She’d refused to see him when he was born, refused to hold him, allowed Wendy to follow the doctor out of the room and make sure he was alive. Wendy had assured her that he was perfect, exceptionally good-looking for a newborn, not pickled and Margaret Thatchery like some babies. It should’ve been a seminal moment, seeing him like this, but all she felt was nausea. She rose from her seat and lifted her arms in an awkward approximation of a greeting, a plastic doll’s attempt to appear human.
“Hi,” she said, woozy. “Jonah, hi again. I’m happy we have a chance to—do this right.”
He was beautiful, and then he opened his mouth. “You’re skinnier than in the pictures.”
Violet glanced uncertainly at Hanna. “Pictures?”
“I googled you. There’s a bunch of pictures of you at, like, a preschool. Like, with a bunch of little kids dressed as policemen.”
“Career Day,” she breathed. Her flagship Shady Oaks event: they’d dressed the babies as adult professionals and raised a shitload of money for a new carpool lane.
“You’re a lot skinnier now,” he said again. He reminded her a little bit of Wendy, then: lovely to look at but annoying as all get-out.
“That was—” She paused to consider. “Oh. That was right after my son was born. So—yes, I suppose I am skinnier now.” She turned to Hanna, hoping for some kind of mediation, but she was just standing there, hands pressed before her, watching them like a tennis match. Hadn’t she prepped him? Hadn’t she taught him not to comment on women’s bodies? Hadn’t she taught him to push back his shoulders in order to avoid scoliosis? Was that a
on his sweatshirt? “That’s an interesting shirt,” she said.
” he said. “You’ve never seen
“Guilty as charged.” Her palms were sweating. She didn’t know that was a thing that actually happened to people. Life was so disappointing. You could be reunited with your kid after fifteen years and still find yourself, two minutes in, talking about television.
“Well,” Hanna said, finally stepping in. “Violet, would you like some pu-erh?”
Hanna was doing something with a big ceramic teapot.
“Oh, no. Thank you. I’m fine.” She lowered herself back into her seat and Jonah and Hanna joined her across the table. Jonah hooked his feet between the rungs of Hanna’s chair and the intimate familiarity of the act aroused a sick twinge in her gut.
It devolved from there. Hanna did most of the talking and Violet and Jonah both, it seemed, were content to let her. Then Hanna had encouraged him to give her one of his slipshod clay coffee mugs and Violet—she would never forgive herself—had done the worst possible thing in the moment, stammered like an idiot and fished around in her purse. He’d tried to give her a gift and she’d handed over forty bucks like some kind of emotionless Daddy Warbucks;
thanks for the pottery, relinquished progeny, now go buy yourself something nice.
The moment she did it she wished she could take it back. Not the money—she’d be happy to give him money, to give him everything in her wallet; the Danforths didn’t seem to be doing especially well financially and research had told her that the monthly stipend paid to foster parents wouldn’t even cover a quarter of Wyatt’s guitar lessons for a month. It wasn’t the money that she regretted but the gesture, the cold emptiness of it. She’d meant it to be nice—every so often when she was a kid her dad would give her a dollar or two for a crayon drawing that she “sold” from a “gallery” at the dining room table. But Jonah was fifteen. Too old to be patronized like that. She was the adult, the
and she was supposed to know how to be tender and gracious. Her own mother accepted every single one of their half-assed art projects like it was a Vermeer. She should have taken the mug and hugged him and demanded that Hanna fill it with pu-erh, stat. But she hadn’t. She’d given him forty dollars, and shortly after that he’d made a terrible joke at her expense and she was certain that the two incidents were directly related. She rose to leave and Hanna followed her to the door, gripped her arm with a fierceness that felt kind of threatening.