Authors: Tish Cohen
idday now and cold enough it could snow. The sun is so bright it stings her eyes, and the distant train whistle sounds like a kettle. Eleanor zips up her jacket, flips the collar up to keep out the chilly air. Beneath it, she’s layered a thick turtleneck over a blouse. She didn’t pack for the weather here. For some reason she expected it to be warmer than home.
The building in front of her, 26 Reeson Road, the address from the records, is actually a large, charcoal-gray Victorian house with original slate roof tiles and a lovingly restored gingerbread porch. On one side, the roof rockets skyward in a fat turret, on the other, a chunky stone chimney.
A backlit sign informs her that Lindquist, Stricker and Blair, Attorneys-at-Law, are based here now, and what once must have been a generous front lawn is now a parking lot filled with Volkswagens and Hyundais, as well as an assortment of expensive black sedans.
Was her mother from a wealthy family? A house this size must have had servants. In Boston, this house would cost a fortune. It’s a grand old mansion.
Her phone rings from her pocket. She pulls it out. “Hey, Noel.”
“He’s gone through that entire bag of dog food. Do you have any more stashed away someplace? Because I don’t really have any way to haul back a bag of dog food from the pet store up on Commonwealth, if that’s where you get this Science Diet stuff. I’d have to take a cab.”
That he has a perfectly nice car parked in front of her store is not worth mentioning. “Angus has finished the entire fifteen-pound bag?”
“If I were you, I’d take him off this high-energy formula. He’s active, sure, but if he eats this much every day, he’s going to balloon.”
Of course it was good he was eating. It’s a huge relief that his depression is lifting. But at the same time, Eleanor can’t help but feel envious he didn’t start eating with her. “There’s another bag in the hall closet. But don’t overfeed him. Just follow the serving sizes I left in the instructions …”
“I haven’t seen any of this depression you mentioned …”
Eleanor hears shuffling on the sidewalk nearby. A rumpled man, well into his seventies, with a stain on his jacket and trousers nearly worn through in the thighs, traps a cigarette between his lips and pats his pockets.
“Sorry, Noel. I have to run.” She slips the phone back into her pocket and approaches the man. “Excuse me. Do you live around here?”
“You got a light?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Damn wife hides my fire nowadays. Thinks she’s keeping me alive, but I tell you, this way I’d rather be dead.”
Eleanor nods emphatically. As if she too is unable to enjoy life because of this shrewish woman.
He motions toward the house. “You work with them lawyers?”
“No. I was just admiring the building.”
He nods, his unlit smoke threatening to fall onto the sidewalk, though she has little doubt he’d slide it back into his mouth if it did. “It’s a beauty. We all thought these dipshits’d tear the place down, but they did it up real nice.”
“You’ve lived here a long time?”
“Most of my life. Grew up over there in Lanark County but Louise was from the big city and wanted to keep it that way. So I did what a smart man does. Did what my wife said and moved up here.”
“This house, do you remember it from, say, the late seventies? Was it a single-family residence?”
“This place?” He chuckles to himself. “Hell, no. This was one of them homes for, you know.”
“Teenage girls who got themselves into trouble. Missouri, it’s dotted with these old places all along the railway. Parents back then’d pack ’em onto a train and send ’em off. ‘Don’t come back until there’s just one of yous again.’ Missouri was known for these places. Girls came from everywhere.”
Her mother, sent away to give birth to Eleanor in secret.
Eleanor squints into the sun at the house and imagines the faces looking out the window. “Imagine. All those girls.”
He slips the smoke out of his mouth and puts it into his shirt pocket, patting it to make sure it’s safe. With a tip of his head, he walks away. “Bunch of damned sluts, if you ask me.”
leanor stands in front of a red door. The glossy oil paint is fresh, she can smell the solvents evaporating, and when she knocks it has a lingering stickiness to it. The ivy-covered town house, four stories high with original mullioned windows and dentil molding is well worthy of its Beacon Hill accoutrements—the cobblestone streets, the flickering gas lamps, the lacy fronds of trees dropping yellow leaves.
She should have gone from the airport straight to the store to check on Ginny, to pick up Angus. She should at least have called before showing up like this, luggage in tow.
After setting her suitcase beside the door, where the poor woman won’t see it and fear Eleanor is moving in, she raps hard on the door. A long silence, followed by the sound of locks being clicked and slid open, then a statuesque figure in the doorway. Isabelle Santos is the perfect mix of elegance and age, with silver-white hair pulled back from a face decorated only with plum lipstick. In her mid- to late sixties, as tall as a man, with cheekbones so sharp they could slice bread, Isabelle is striking. Her long fuchsia silk
caftan, delicately embroidered with tiny birds at the cuffs, and black velvet slippers match her understated sophistication to perfection.
Isabelle’s black eyes travel from Eleanor’s shoes, up her socks and tights to her skirt and turtleneck, blouse, and sweater. Over Eleanor’s two scarves—one for fashion, one for warmth—and cape, then through her windblown hair, held back with a jeweled barrette. A slow smile crinkles her face into an expression of pure joy.
“They didn’t tell me you’d be a woman. This is refreshing. Bizarre, but refreshing.”
Eleanor squints, confused, and allows the woman to usher her inside. If she believed the exterior of the house to be exquisite, the interior nearly makes her gasp. The look is that of old and moneyed Europe, with windows that start at the floor, which is done in oversize tumbled bricks, creamy brown in color and set in a herringbone pattern. The walls are rough-plastered in a hemp tone and curved archways separate enormous rooms. Rough-hewn beams support ceilings that soar upwards of twelve feet. In the center of the living room hangs an iron chandelier that might have been salvaged from a thirteenth-century mansion.
While the envelope of the space is decidedly masculine, the decor is quite the opposite: downy white sofas and chairs groan beneath embankments of decorative pillows. Cushions of linen and silk, burlap and muslin are trimmed with jute and lace and pearls and European family crests.
The plumpy softness is too tempting. Eleanor wants to walk across the room, sink into the love seat, and lose herself in the tickly fill. The fluffiness, the affability, it’s like a mother’s womb.
“I simply love this day and age. Women can do just about anything. In my day, you became a secretary.” Isabelle rushes down the hallway and glances back over her glasses. “Personal assistant,
me.” She opens a door and disappears down a dark set of stairs.
Eleanor isn’t sure if she’s meant to follow and stays in the doorway. “Brenda in Topeka told me you may not do this kind of thing anymore,” she calls down the stairs. “But I’m hoping you’ll make an exception. See, I went all the way to Kansas City and found out I wasn’t even adopted there.”
Isabelle comes back up the stairs with a plunger in her hand. She looks enormously disappointed. “You’re not the plumber?”
“No, I’m Eleanor Sweet. I came for—”
“Slipshod plumber is two days late. I was just so excited to get my pipes fixed, I assumed …”
“I know I should have called first, but I really need help.”
Isabelle hands Eleanor a plunger. “No wasted hands around here, I’m afraid. You’re not against a bit of manual labor, are you, Eleanor Sweet?”
Eleanor stands, gloved and embarrassed, holding a plunger over the sink in the main-floor powder room as per Isabelle’s instructions. This room is vintage New York City, with its floor-to-ceiling white subway tiles and black and white honeycomb floor, complete with century-old cracks. The sink is chipped in spots and the drain stopper is a shrunken apple core of a thing, but it, like the toilet, is crisp with cleanliness. The window, in spite of its fat and important trim, is tiny and too high to be of much use.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she calls down to Isabelle. “You should call the plumbing company again.”
Isabelle’s voice is tiny from the bowels of the big house. “They’re a conglomerate of imbeciles.”
“I’m just not sure this is going to work.”
“Ready? Set and go! Plunge away.”
They both begin to pump until the pipes in the walls groan, then make a whooshing sound. The water in the toilet beside Eleanor gurgles, and Isabelle calls, “Success, darling.”
Eleanor washes her hands and returns to the foyer to wait for Isabelle to emerge from the cellar, and the woman does so wiping her hands on a thick towel.
“I think we should market ourselves immediately. Of course you’ll have to do all the legwork. I’m not much for leaving the house these days.”
“Actually, that’s why I’m here. I need help finding my birth parents. I need a search angel.”
Isabelle’s face ages ten years. “I’m retired.”
“I’m willing to pay if that helps.”
“I don’t and never did work for money. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m very much in the middle of something.”
“But you haven’t heard me out.”
She checks her watch. “I have fifty-three seconds until the soufflé I have in the oven is done. Say anything you want until then.”
“I went out to Kansas City, and there’s this road. And apparently I was born on the left side and adopted on the right. Wrong. And the thing is, I’m adopting a little girl myself. A baby orphaned in the earthquake out west this year. And I’m doing it all by myself. I got lucky that the agency will let me. But they—and I totally agree—they want me to have
some kind of support system. You know, the kind of person you can call in the middle of the night and just bawl your head off to when your baby won’t take the bottle or—”
“Please don’t mistake my brevity for lack of concern, but my soufflé is in very real danger of collapsing. If you insist on speaking, you’ll have to do so over lunch.”
Eleanor follows behind her. “Your house is beautiful.”
“I have my late husband to thank for it. Brilliant family lawyer. Never has there been a man who worked as hard or helped as many. I’m lucky to have had him most of my life.”
In the kitchen, Isabelle pours red wine into fat juice glasses and sets them on the marble-topped island, then settles herself on a stool across from Eleanor, who watches her from behind a vase stuffed with peonies. On the island, along with a lit candle the shape and size of a can of apple juice, sits the soufflé, all golden brown and steaming from the oven in its orange Le Creuset dish. Tomatoes so fresh they might still be growing lie, red and cubed and juicy in what appears to be a homemade bowl, and a thin bottle stands in the center wearing a monogrammed Santos family crest. On the label, in elegant script, someone has hand-written,
olive oil, garlic, basil, etc
On the wall to Eleanor’s right is a massive, bleached-wood cupboard with all the pomp and tiers of a wedding cake. The upper shelves are lined with well-used cookbooks in English and French. Tucked between the books is a silver-framed photo of a newborn baby wrapped in blue, his mouth pursed and his fists tucked into his chin. The photo isn’t in good shape; it appears creased, torn in one corner.
“Cute baby,” says Eleanor.
Isabelle sets down two plates with a bang. Gone is the sweet forcefulness of before. The air itself is sharp, serrated. Eleanor wants to flee; she’s done something wrong. She glances at her purse on the floor. Three seconds, she could grab it and be gone. Then again, she needs this woman.
“Kansas City,” says Isabelle. “I’ve had more adoptees approach me with that State Line Road problem than any other place. What I’d like to know is what came first? The city split in two by a state line or the two states deciding it would be a grand idea to go sharesies on a large metropolis.”
This is good. Isabelle is onside. Eleanor pulls out the bracelet and, while the woman carves out a deliciously sloppy piece of soufflé, explains that all she has to go on is her birthplace and her mother’s possible name of Ruth Smith. “What I don’t understand is, if she spent her pregnancy at one of the homes for pregnant girls, didn’t they give birth in those places?”
“Birth and death. Often there were ‘doctors’ in residence or who stopped by, who performed terribly rudimentary abortions or they botched their deliveries. Young girls died. Your mother was smart. And Smith might not be her real name.”
“But what might have happened was there were complications. Your mother may have started to give birth in the home and something went wrong. Bleeding, or the baby got stuck. They may have rushed your mother to the nearest hospital. Lucky for you, if so. Many of the administrators of these places didn’t act quickly enough.”
She thought about her mother, alone and likely underage. Scared for her own life. Or her baby’s. “But why wouldn’t she have given her real name at the hospital?”
“I’m not saying it isn’t her name. It very well could be. But Smith is the most commonly used fake name I’ve come across.” She plays with her wine glass. “There was a good deal of shame surrounding unwed mothers back then. Her parents may’ve been terrified she’d be found out and it would destroy her life. Or, just as important, theirs.” She stands up. “Now, let’s eat. I’ve made a lovely flan for dessert. And I need your help with the dishes. I forbid you to leave until we’re all cleaned up.”
It isn’t until the food and wine are consumed and dishes are dried with a pom-pommed Eiffel Tower tea towel and put into the cupboards that Eleanor musters the nerve to beg. “I can’t wait any longer. I’m desperate. Would you be willing to help me?”
“I’m not a young woman, Eleanor Sweet. I’ve retired recently and after a lifetime of running around, I like to stay put. But I can connect you with someone else.”
“Again, I’ll pay any amount. I’ll borrow against my business—”
Isabelle looks up sharply. “I said I
work for money.” The room grows silent but for the soft tick-tick of a clock on the armoire. Isabelle folds the towel and lays it over the oven door pull. “You’re wearing a wedding band.”
Eleanor fiddles with her ring. “It’s complicated. Basically, he panicked once we’d been approved and backed out. He might be coming back—I have no idea. But I do know I have to have Sylvie.”
Isabelle has turned. She stares out the sliding glass door into the tiny jewel of a backyard—thick with bare branches that frame stone benches and a large stone fountain emptied out for the coming season. When she turns back, she avoids
Eleanor’s eye. Roots through a drawer and hands Eleanor a card. It reads
Martina Kalla, Adoption Search Angel
, with a phone number.
Eleanor takes the card and follows Isabelle to the door, where, she notices now, a stack of empty delivery boxes sits against the wall, all bearing the logo
. On the hall table are unopened bubble envelopes from Amazon with book-shaped contents.
“I wish you luck, Eleanor Sweet,” Isabelle says with the door open. “And fewer layers of clothing. It isn’t an invisibility cloak you’re wearing. Rest assured, we can still see you.”
Eleanor feels her cheeks flush. She waits until the door thumps shut before wheeling her suitcase across the stoop and bumping it down the steps.