Michael’s Wife (5 page)

Consuela served them silently, staring openly at Laurel. Everyone else avoided looking at her. Paul leafed through a folder of papers. Janet studied the day's mail, and Claire concentrated on her salad. There was a kind of fidgety silence at the table as if they were all thinking the same thing and wanted to talk about it but were unable to find a civil way to do so. The statue of a half-dog, half-lion creature glared at her from the center of a nearby fountain, water trickling from its snarling jaws.

This was her first meal in twenty-four hours, but Laurel's stomach would tolerate only the rolls, a little fruit, and coffee. She felt out of place in her messy clothes. The tear in her slacks had widened and her sandals were still gritty from her desert walk.

Janet finally laid down a letter and looked directly at her. “Dear Michael will leave his little problems on our doorstep, won't he?”

“Janet!” Paul Devereaux's scanty mustache had acquired a quiver.

“Well, for heaven's sake. First Jimmy and now her. What else will he present us with out of the blue? I'm not running a home for bedraggled castoffs.”

“This is Michael's home as well as yours; he has every right to house his family here.”

“Of course. And how nice that we can care for them while he goes off to play soldier.” Janet's polished fingernails tapped the glass-topped table and then pretended to rearrange burnished hair where not one of the elegantly chiseled ringlets was out of place. She wore button earrings and full makeup that could not hide the creases at the outer corners of her eyes or the lines on her forehead.

“I suppose we shall have to do something about your clothes, Laurel. We can't have the mother of the Devereaux heir parading around in tatters, can we? I'm afraid Tucson hasn't much to offer, but then anything would be an improvement. Claire will take you in this afternoon.”

“Why do I have to do it?” Claire lifted a sullen face from her salad.

“She's right, Janet. Claire gets all the odd jobs around here. She was hired as a secretary, you know. Can't you do it?”

“Nonsense. Claire would just love to do something nice for Michael's dear wife. Wouldn't you, Claire?”

And Claire retreated to her salad, the blush once again spreading up her throat to her face.

“I … don't want to be any trouble.”

“Trouble? Nonsense, Laurel. Long-lost wives drop in on us every day. Although I don't know how I'm to explain this to our friends. I had just let it be understood that you were dead.”

Paul removed his glasses and wiped them on a cloth napkin, weakened eyes squinting in the sun. Replacing his glasses, he leaned forward and cleared his throat as if preparing to deliver a lecture. “What our friends think is of no consequence, but I do feel that the family has a right to know just what you've been up to.”

“I can't tell you.”

“Laurel, perhaps you don't realize the difficulties. Leaving a husband is one thing, deserting a child quite another.” He spoke quickly, impatiently, and Laurel sensed his irritation at having to be involved at all. “I shall have to inquire, but I presume there is still some case against you on the police records in Denver.”

“Denver?”

“Of course, that's where the desertion took place. And I would imagine it is a state offense, a criminal offense.”

Laurel could only stare at the top of his head, much of it shining in the sun through thinning hair. She couldn't meet his glance.

“Paul, you can't bring the police in on this.”

“We'll do all we can to keep this as discreet as possible, Janet. But there's bound to be some kind of legal action and we must know all before we confront the authorities. Now Laurel, if we're to help you, you must tell us where you've been.”

“I don't know. I don't remember. Please, I feel sick.” As she left her place at the table, she collided with Consuela.

“You realize that you will have to answer to us, to Michael, the police, and someday to Jimmy? That is, if you intend to stay.”

Laurel ran from the courtyard and Janet's insistent voice followed her. “What does she mean she can't remember? Paul, make her come back. That's all we need—a scandal.”

There were stone stairs at the corner of the courtyard and she raced up them and along the balcony, the diners below watching her as she looked for the outside to her room. But the room she entered was the wrong one and Jimmy sat up in his crib.

“Hi!”

“Go to sleep.” She hurried to the connecting door to her own room and lay facedown on the big bed, tears soaking into the wild horses on the spread. These people were horrible. They'd be glad if she ran out into the desert and died there. Where
had
she been? And how long had she been gone?
Am I really Laurel?
A criminal offense, Paul had said. Would she go to prison?

A Teddy bear landed beside her, and Jimmy stood next to the bed in a shirt and diapers. His hair was combed down over his forehead, almost covering his eyebrows.

“Doesn't anybody ever cut your hair?”

“Bad boy.” Sober eyes looked into hers. They weren't Michael's eyes or Paul's. Brown, large, elongated, narrowing at the outer corners like buttonholes—so dark that iris, rim, and pupil almost looked like one—vaguely familiar eyes.

“You are not a bad boy. You're too young to be bad. Whatever you are, they've made you that way. And if I'm Laurel … I guess I have, too.”

His meager vocabulary could only produce a “Hi” in answer to her little speech. She picked him up and went to stand before the double mirrors above the dresser. He was unbelievably heavy, and she wondered how the frail-looking Claire managed to tote him around. They stared at each other in one of the mirrors, Jimmy looking a little worried at being held by a stranger. There was a similarity in the shape and color of their eyes. But their skin and hair coloring was so different, and her lashes and brows were thicker and darker. How many colors and shapes did eyes have anyway? Surely there weren't that many choices.

“What do you think, Jimmy? Am I your mommy? You're a nice, handsome little boy. But I don't feel anything for you I wouldn't feel for any nice little boy I met in the park.”

His answer was to shove the Teddy bear in her face and bite through her blouse into her shoulder.

“Ouch!” She put him down and he raced back to his room, screeching like an Indian with a new scalp. Pulling her blouse back to examine the wound, she found that sharp baby teeth had broken the skin. When she got to him he was standing beside his crib, backed up against the bars, rebellious eyes daring her to punish him.

“Easier to get out of bed than back in, I take it.” She hoisted him into the crib before he could dart away, covering him and the Teddy bear.

True to Janet's word, Claire took her into Tucson that afternoon. It was embarrassing to enter small expensive shops in torn slacks and dusty sandals, needing everything from underclothes to a handbag. Janet had sent along an extravagant list of what she would need, with a note on the bottom, “We dress for dinner, you know.” Salesladies with molded smiles tried hard to look through her, but the name Devereaux brought their eyes into focus. Little nifties began to appear from nowhere, “so much nicer” than those on the racks. A handwritten note from Claire and an occasional discreet phone call were all that was necessary—no money, not even a charge plate changed hands.

To have literally nothing and to be offered her choice of everything was frightening. She wanted almost everything she touched, but she felt a growing obligation to the Devereaux', to Michael. With each exhilarating new possession came a feeling that she was selling a piece of her freedom, a pair of shoes, a dress, an eyeliner at a time. The spree ended in a drugstore, where she bought the basics. Even a toothbrush and a comb seemed to Laurel a priceless treasure, an extravagant bottle of foaming bath oil the most precious of all.

“You could have had some of this delivered,” Claire pointed out as they staggered back to the car, both loaded with packages and the car already heaped with previous deposits. She hadn't done justice to Janet's list, but even so it had been hard to leave behind those few things that had to be altered. She still wore her own clothes as if putting off a little longer her commitment to being Laurel Devereaux.

Claire Bently's thin lips maintained their tight disapproval as she drove home. But Laurel decided to try to pump her for information anyway. Perhaps if she knew more she would remember something of what had happened.

“How long have you worked for the Devereaux'?”

“I've been here nine years.”

“That long? Then you were here when … when Jimmy came. Have you always taken care of him?”

“We tried some nurses at first, but they kept leaving. I'm Professor Devereaux's secretary, but I started helping with Jimmy and lately I've done nothing else. You can't imagine the surprise he was to all of us.” Claire giggled nervously and without humor, a loud irritating sound she often made for no apparent reason, as some people unconsciously clear their throats out of habit rather than need.

“You didn't know Michael had a child?”

“Child? We didn't even know he was married.”

“Did he bring Jimmy to Tucson from Denver?”

“Of course not. How could he? He was in Vietnam.” Claire looked away from traffic to search Laurel's face. “He hasn't told you what happened after you left, has he?”

“No.” She'd left her child while the father was in Vietnam. What had happened to make her do such a thing?

“Well,
I
'
ll
tell you. Michael and Professor Devereaux had an argument about Michael's entering the Air Force. But Michael went off anyway, and we heard very little from him for about three years.” Claire's speech was like her driving, full of nervous spurts of speed and interspersed with slower phrases when she attempted sophistication.

“Then all of a sudden we get a phone call from Vietnam and it's Michael. We had no idea he was seeing any action. But that wasn't what he was calling about. Michael said that he was married and the Red Cross had notified him that his wife had had a baby and then walked out of the hospital and disappeared.”

“I left Jimmy in the hospital … a newborn?” No wonder Michael was so furious with her.

“You know very well what you did. Don't try any of that ‘I don't remember' stuff on me.”

“Then what happened?”

“All I know is that Michael said your parents wouldn't take the baby and would we please take care of him until he got home.”

“My parents?”

“Yes, they went to Denver to try to find out what had happened and then your mother brought Jimmy to us. Your mother was in tears. I think she wanted Jimmy, but your father would have nothing more to do with anything that would remind him of you. You can hardly blame him.”

“When did all this happen? I … I've lost track of time.”

“Jimmy will be two in June, which is a strange thing to be telling his own mother.”

It was too much. She'd been gone almost two years. She now had two parents she couldn't remember and had deserted a newborn baby in the hospital while its father was halfway around the world in a war.… The one hope she could cling to was that she might not be Laurel.

After dinner she stood in the middle of a litter of packages and tried to comprehend what Claire had said. Why would Laurel leave her baby that way? What had happened since?
Am I Laurel?
It just didn't seem possible. And it didn't explain the danger that lurked in the corners of her mind, that refused to come out of hiding so that she could identify it. She felt so helpless not knowing in which direction to look for a menace she couldn't even describe.

The throbbing in her head drove her to action and she hung dress after dress in the empty wardrobe that stood against the wall. Another across the room held Michael's clothes. She filled drawers with lingerie, depressed at the wastefulness of a vanity that had told her she really needed every item.

How can I feel guilt about my extravagance and feel only numb about what I did to that child?
She washed her hair again, this time with a creamy shampoo.

If I am Laurel, I'd feel ashamed of that desertion whenever I looked at him
. Stifling an urge to go in to see if he was covered for the night, she lay back in a hot bath, scented bubbles filling it to the brim. She couldn't seem to get enough sleep or enough scrubbing. Was she trying to wash away dirt or guilt?

It was then that the obvious hit her and she sat up in the tub spilling frothy bubbles over its edge.
I must be Laurel! Why else would I have had Michael Devereaux's name on that piece of paper?

The next morning she stepped again onto the thick carpeting of the staircase, but not so hesitantly as the morning before. Could the indescribable thing she'd feared then have been in her mind? Was it in this house because she had brought it with her? That made her even more uneasy than the thought of a danger outside herself. Or had her nerves quieted a little because she knew Michael Devereaux was not here?

This time her thoughts engaged her attention so completely that she didn't see the shadow near the upright chest in the corner by the salon doors until it moved.

4

The shadow detached itself from the shadow of the chest and became a man. He was almost to the doors that led out of the house when she must have made some sound, for he whirled to face her.

He looked as startled as she felt, his hand suspended toward the doorknob but not quite touching it, her foot suspended above the next step.

He finally lowered his arm and shrugged. “Hi.”

Her foot settled on the step. She moved to the bottom of the staircase expecting him to dart out the door, but he stood so still he didn't seem to be breathing. His mustache curled down at the corners around his mouth instead of up like Paul's.

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