A new excerpt from a novel in progress, set in the Hudson Valley during a power blackout, horrific weather, and the vicissitudes of men and women trying to live their normal happy, and sometimes, funny lives.
Tess shrugged into her full-length parka and zipped it. The snow outside had not abated, and the wind was a killer. But she was due at the hospital in twenty minutes. Thank God for her Subaru, and thank heavens she always kept it full of gas. There was none that could be pumped for miles around. Forget about food deliveries, or clothing, or even water if you had your own well.
Jerry had not come home during the night, working on wires and cables somewhere in the district with his pals. The road crews had half-assed cleared the highway to the hospital, which was all she needed. Dr. Gerber was just across from it in a Medical Park.
She checked a mirror near the front doorway. Her face was clear and shining when she wasn’t working. At work she felt compelled to make it up — bright and cute in a way with a button nose and sea-bright blue eyes. She’d kept her figure, even Jerry noticed, and rivaled J-Lo in certain come-hither areas.
In earlier days, her own devil-may-care attitude — no misnomer, as she really didn’t think the Devil cared one way or the other — and her often too-quick-to-reply with a double entendre was just as dangerous as her J-Lo. Over the years, Tess had almost managed to control her instincts to be funny and sexy unless she was really interested. What hadn’t changed over time was her high-school moue about sex: she would purse her lips slightly, tilt her head to one side, and wink at her target.
She pulled open her front door and, slamming it behind her, made a bee-line for her car, waddling under her wrapping through the 20 inches of snow. Impatiently, she swept an arm at the top of the wagon and along the driver’s window. The car’s engine turned over easily. She snapped on the windshield wipers and rocked her way from the curb.
She couldn’t afford to dawdle. She’d been given a special dispensation from Beryl, allowing her to make the early morning appointment. She wondered how many hearty souls would make it to “Cobble Gobble” in this weather. The regulars, of course. Maybe some of the repair crews.
She didn’t bother to slow to examine the damage of downed trees and fallen wires she saw or sensed peripherally. Four and half days and very little progress made. Rumor had it that every time the electric company felt confident about announcing a back-on-line, something blew up.
Thank God for Jerry and their generator which warmed — heated would be too grand a concept — their kitchen and one bedroom upstairs and its bath.
She stamped the snow off her boots and shook her coat onto the carpeted hallway before opening Dr. Gerber’s door. Where usually there were four women behind the rippled, sliding glass, this morning there was only one. Tess guessed this must be Dr. Gerber’s wife. She gave the woman a smile and signed in.
“No wait today,” said the woman. “I’m amazed you made it in.”
“It’s important to me,” Tess announced firmly but with a smile. “I’m really grateful the doctor is keeping his schedule.”
“How are things at your house?” asked the woman.
“Without a generator, we’d be dead.”
A door to the waiting room was pulled open. “Tess, come right in.”
Tess collected her things and followed the doctor into the office hallway, taking a left turn as he directed. She sat on a small straight chair beside a wall-desk, listening to the hum of the building’s propane generator. She would hate to have to put on a Johnny today. The temperature inside couldn’t be more than forty-five.
The doctor joined her within seconds, carrying her folder.
“Who’d have thought, eh?” he said. “How much longer do you think we can hold out?”
“It’s got to get better soon,” Tess replied.
Dr. Gerber — fifty, trim, pale, horn-rimmed, wearing thick brush boots, corduroys, and a heavy cable-knit sweater — opened Tess’s folder. “Now, Tess,” he said slowly, “you’ve had three miscarriages in five years.”
“We can’t keep bringing you in and repairing damage much longer, you know,” he cautioned. “You’re an attractive woman, still in her prime. You have energy and determination. You’d make a sensational adoptive mother.”
“I don’t want that. I want another child.”
“How old is Marylee?”
“Just eighteen,” Tess said.
“She still at home?”
Tess shook her head. “Left the minute she graduated. The lure of the big city. I hope to God she’s warmer down there, but I doubt it.”
“Listen, Tess, one more of these events and we’ll have to clean you out. I know that sounds terrible but you’re in real danger of doing some permanent harm to your plumbing.”
Tess leaned forward. “We’ve been doing tests, doctor,” she said. “You have, I mean. What have we learned?”
“I wish I could be more positive and more certain, Tess. It seems to us that your immune system is at war with what you so badly want. Every time you get pregnant, your system rejects the child as a foreign object. It attacks it. This is rare, and to be honest, not well-documented. Really all we have is a hunch. It doesn’t look as though this is going to change. An enzyme or a gene was released when you had Marylee. Apparently it’s a jealous one. It doesn’t want you to have another child.”
“But I have time yet, don’t I?”
“Yes, you do. But your body is working against you.”
“Well, I’ve got to keep trying,” Tess said.
Dr. Gerber nodded, understanding. “Just be warned,” he said. “A few more episodes and for your own sake, we’ll have to do an hysterectomy.”
“I’ll have to take that chance, I guess. I need, really physically, doctor, I need to have another child.”
“How does your husband feel about this?”
Tess smiled, pursed her lips and tipped her head slightly. “He’ll go along with it.”
A few minutes later, sitting in her car, Tess ran the vehicle’s heater, thinking as she rather inattentively made up her eyes and put on lipstick. She pulled the hood of her parka back and stroked her red-blond hair into something more closely resembling neatness. She winked at herself in the rear-view mirror.
The thing was, she told herself for the hundredth time, it couldn’t be her fault. She was a great mother, a giving, loving woman who thrived on doting on small, helpless creatures…and, on occasion, on larger, hapless ones.
But for the past few years, since Marylee had turned twelve, Tess had woken each morning with all synapses firing. She could smell talcum powder against clean skin, she could feel thin, wispy hair around her fingers, she could hear the totally unselfconscious laughter of a baby in full delight.
She didn’t imagine she was unusual in any of this. Wonderful mothers existed all over the world.
What she was fighting now certainly wasn’t the fault of advanced internal medicine. She trusted her doctor absolutely.
That left only one culprit, even if he didn’t know it. Even if tests showed he wasn’t to blame, there was no one else. There had been, of course, but not in some time. And those incidents were just impulses, nerves snapping to attention when no one was looking. They had nothing to do with her dependence on Jerry, on her genuine affection for him after all theses years.
He was a good lover. He had been, from the very first. She had never found out who taught him, but she was no longer a curious seventeen year old. She was now simply grateful.
She was increasingly convinced, and her doctor’s admonitions did nothing to dilute this idea, that her body was reacting not simply to foreign matter in its system, her fertilized egg, but to the components of that fertilized egg. Cutting to the chase, it was Jerry’s sperm that was the intruder, the embargoed stranger that caused her system to seize. So why should her body reject someone else’s sperm, a different component of the bundle that should be growing so healthily?
She craned around to see out her iced rear-window, backing out of her parking space. There were dozens of healthy specimens she caught sight of every day, often some she herself served and flirted with.
In an emergency like this, with power down and out for who knew how much longer, hot young guys were coming in for a cup of coffee and a Danish, or a gigantic sandwich to carry through the day. Not everyone in town knew Jerry. And not every customer lived in town, either, which was even better.
Tess could feel guilt rise in her gut. It had been a long time since she’d had to whistle and weedle her way around Jerry’s suspicions. But in the midst of crises, why would he even suspect? Every man, woman and child in Rhineberry shivered, hoped, and prayed, wrapped in wool or synthetics, waiting for a bulletin from their disabled radios or tvs or hand-held devices. Who would think of sex at a time like this?
Only a woman who wanted a child so desperately she would put her marriage on the line again.
Reaching the Cobble, she found that curbside parking outside the small restaurant was almost impossible to navigate. Twice that morning, before Tess had arrived, trucks had back-slid into other trucks. Not much damage done, but not a lot of good humor surfaced, either.
Tess half-crawled up the iced walk-way, made worse by the newly falling snow, and slipped into the comparative warmth of Beryl’s domain. She was surprised as always by the crowd within, not to mention the feats of magic Beryl demonstrated by having fresh bread, pastries, and juices delivered regardless of the blackout.
The eatery — diner was too small a word, and restaurant too grand — was planned and organized militarily. As one entered, there was a long shoulder-height counter on the left, below which were pastries and pies and fresh fruit behind glass. At the far end of this was a cash register with Tip Jar not too far away from it.
There were only four tables with chairs, each with salt and pepper shakers and fresh flowers. There was a rack for local papers: Albany, Poughkeepsie, smaller Hudson Valley dailies. At the back of the room stood three glass-fronted cases, containing soft drinks, home-made rice pudding and salads, cellophane pre-wrapped and mayonnaised sandwiches.
Outside, though now covered by the snow-fall that had begun the night before, were four gigantic picnic tables for dining in sunshine when the season allowed.
Tess edged her way through the crowds at the counter, smiling at Sandra, inhaling the damp wool and wet leather scents that were strong enough almost to create a physical, sensual obstacle. Mitigating this aura was the collection of hand-made signs, or signs bought at yard sales, with messages that were intended to lighten the mood of those waiting for their food: “I don’t repeat gossip so listen carefully.”
“Prices are subject to change, according to the customers’ attitude.”
“There will be a $5 charge for Whining, $10 for being a real pain in the butt.”
And atop the counter, an urn: “Ashes of Problem Customers.”
Tess slipped into the back dressing-room and shucked her outerwear. Suddenly she thought of herself as chum on the ocean, about to be thrown into the water to stir up some hungry, underfed passing behemoth. She laughed to herself: her “under-water” figure was rolled and wrapped tightly against the chill, making it just the tiniest bit more difficult for a passing shark to swallow her whole.
Tess took her place behind the counter, mouthed “thanks” to Beryl who stood straight and tall at the propane-fed grill, as always unwilling to hand over control to someone just as good but also not herself. Beryl had a lot of quiet confidence for a woman six feet and close to a hundred eighty pounds, with two husbands behind her, three children still in Central School, up at four every morning and on her feet thereafter for ten hours. Better her than me, Tess thought for the hundredth time, reciting orders for tea and sandwiches and wraps down the line.
She served, swiped the counter, nudged the Tip Jar closer to the crowd, slipped through the mostly male bodies to deliver what had been ordered. She wasn’t concentrating on her innards or their needs. She was, simply, doing her job.
Until a young stud of maybe mid-twenty caught her eye, and she his. He was stubbled, wearing a Hudson’s Bay jacket and heavy boots. No telling what he actually did, but insofar as he was, to Tess, a total stranger, he might be from out of town, there only to try to get the place up and running again.
She smiled, pursed, ducked, and winked at him. He returned the friendly signals.
Tess wondered how cold the leatherette back-seat of this guy’s 1500 would be before she realized they couldn’t possibly be laid out that way. It was far too cold. Even her knees wouldn’t be in contact with the upholstery.
Anyway, it wasn’t necessary that she start her quest immediately.
Five hours passed and Tess left the Cobble.
“Marylee called,” Jerry announced, coming out of the shower.
Tess glanced quickly and guiltily at him. He was still head-and-shoulders above the kid she’d just had.
“Said things down south were the same as here: freezing, grumpy.”
“Shouldn’t wonder,” Tess said, slipping off her coat and squinching at one of her boots, using it to unlatch the other. “Anything new from your end?” she asked.
Jerry shook his head and slipped into his boxers as quickly as he could. “God, it’s cold. No. Apparently what we’ve heard is true. Just when the grid is ready to go back on, something whacks it and we’re down again. Who knows how long this could go on?” He shrugged into a sweatshirt, slipped on sweat-pants, and covered both with his parka.
“You’re late coming home,” he said.
Tess nodded shortly. “Was late going in, so I stayed to help Beryl for tomorrow.”
“Beryl was there all alone when I stopped by.”
Jerry sat on their double bed and pulled on heavy woolen socks. “So, what did the doctor say?”
“What he said before. My system seems angry.”
“What can you do about it?”
“He suggested we adopt.”
“And you said —?”
Tess turned her full wattage on her husband. “I told him you were still in there pitching.”
Jerry stood up, squeezing his stockinged feet into new boots. “You’re your own girl, Tess. You know I love you. No matter what. And we’ve had a great and happy life. If you don’t want to adopt, that’s fine with me. I couldn’t be happier with Marylee. But how do you think I would feel again, now, not knowing whether one of the guys on my own crew is sleeping with you?”
Before Tess could even register astonishment that Jerry was rolling along the same line as she, her mouth ran away with the spoon. “What’s his name?”