FIRST BYLINES: In many respects it’s easier to publish an established, even an award-winning writer, than it is to publish someone for the first time.
The life-size wood and plaster horse stands in the cold outside the empty storefront where the Bryn Mawr Hardware Company used to be. Once used as a model for custom-made saddles and bridles, the horse has stood here on Lancaster Avenue since the 1920s. Once upon a time, in the spring, a little girl perched on the horse’s back, pummeling its painted flanks with her Keds and imagining herself galloping into the sky. Her mother snapped a photo, “So Daddy can see your face, even at work." The framed picture gazed on her father’s office for decades with the same hopeful expression.
Lydia isn’t aware that she’s staring out the car window until she feels Robert’s warm hand brush her shoulder.
“You all right?”
“Yeah. Sure.” She turns and manages what must be a weak smile. “Did you hear they’re selling off the horse? I read it in the Inquirer.”
A car honks behind them. Robert turns back to his driving. Lancaster Avenue slides away from them, icicles hanging from the awnings of the shops and from the old horse’s plaster chin.
“Three-oh-five,” From the backseat, six-year-old Cesar reads the house numbers along the right side of Gulph Road, “Three-oh-seven, three-oh-nine!”
At her parents’ house, their wet boots slap on the tile floor of the foyer. “Where’s my favorite grandchild?” Lydia’s mom cries.
“I’m right here!” answers Cesar, as Grandma bends and wraps her woolen arms around the little boy.
But in the midst of the hug, she turns her worn face upward to Lydia. “Have you spoken to your brother, dear?” Her voice is strained, as if she has been shouting.
When her mother stands to embrace her, Lydia can feel the bird-like bones under her sweater. “I called yesterday but I got Will’s voicemail.” Her ear still stings from the sounds of the unanswered ringing, followed by Will’s outgoing message, and the empty space after the beep. She doesn’t mention the fact that she knows Will wears his Blackberry clipped to his belt everywhere he goes.
“Oh,” her mother gazes past Lydia toward the door. Then rearranging her face, she cries, “Look how big you are, Cesar!”
They gather in the parlor, where her father sits quietly in his favorite chair, with his walker within easy reach. His hair is full and curly as ever; only recently it has begun to go gray. His face is still slack with the dismay and surprise she saw when she visited him in the hospital and later, in the rehab center, but then bursts into a smile when he sees Lydia. She bends to kiss him. Her father and Robert nod at each other as they shake hands.
When she was a child, on those rare occasions when Daddy was home in time for dinner, if he sat staring at his wineglass, her mother would say, “Your father had a bad day.” Lydia wanted so badly to cheer him up, but she didn’t know what to say to him. And then, she became a lawyer, and they discovered a common language. When they discussed cases, she saw how the law energized him, gave him purpose, his eyes flashing with his argument, his hands gesturing. But since the stroke, Lydia no longer knows how to reach her father. He listens, hands in his lap, and she doesn’t see the same light in his eyes. She doesn’t know whether he can’t find the words, or has lost interest.
“Oh, this must be that gadget you wanted me to work on, Mom,” says Robert, picking up the package waiting for him on the side table. The label says, “Home Care Hand Held Shower.” One of many new accommodations to the house since her father’s recent homecoming. Lydia’s mother has also hired an aide. Robert opens the box and peers inside it. “It looks simple enough to install.”
“Maybe for you,” Lydia’s mother presses her son-in-law’s arm. “Not for us Bradfords. It’s great to have someone in the family who’s handy. Right, Daddy?” A mother trying to include a child too young to speak.
Her father nods.
“C’mon, buddy,” Robert says to Cesar, “Grandma has another project for us fix-it men.” They troop into the bathroom together, her mom leading the way.
“Wait up, Dad!” Cesar calls. His favorite bright-green soccer socks hang off the ends of his toes. Ever since soccer season he insists on wearing the long socks almost every day, and even to bed.
“So gud of yeeou to come,” her father says in his formal way. The stroke clouds his blue eyes, obscuring the words that once were his readiest tools.
“Of course I came, Daddy. I was planning to come today even before you... um... before you had your... um... um... stroke.”
“Be-fore I wass stri-cken.” The once-easy wit now twists his mouth.
“Well, I’ll leave you two men to do your project,” her mother calls over her shoulder to Robert and Cesar, as she returns into the parlor. Lydia sees her father’s head turn to his wife, following her movements with strange wonderment, as if she has changed her hair color or suddenly gained weight.
Mom sits down in the chair in front of the sunny window, opposite her husband, a file folder in her hand, wearing the face she used to wear when she made Lydia practice her multiplication tables. “Daddy, let’s show Lydia your speech exercises. Lydia, you see, we have to do five repetitions of each exercise, then pause five seconds between reps. First, round your lips tightly.”
He perches in his chair, his feet flat on the floor, heels together, hands folded, eyes on his instructor, the attentive student he trained his daughter to be. He pushes his lips together as if he’s saying, “Oooh.” One rep. He looks like a caricature of surprise. Two reps, three reps. He and Lydia’s mother do mirror image exercises. Four reps. With the sunlight behind them, her parents remind her of an optical illusion she’d seen in a schoolbook: is it a vase or two silhouettes facing each other? Five reps. Outside the window, the sun reflects off the snow and a car hurtles down Gulph Road towards Philadelphia, trailing its loud exhaust like a wake behind it.
Lydia’s gaze falls on the painting that has hung over the mantelpiece all of her life. In the foreground, the three-masted schooner, once owned and sailed by Lydia’s great-grandfather, cuts its way through the roiling ocean on its regular route from London to Philadelphia. Whitecaps splash its prow. A squall approaches from a distance. This ship was lost with all hands several years after the painting was made. Her great-grandfather would never know his son.
Lydia’s mind spills into the painted waves. It is the summer when her father made partner, and accompanied the family to the Jersey shore as he’d promised. Lydia was twelve, eager for her father’s approval. As they packed their toothbrushes the night before, Will, about fourteen, whispered to his sister, “I wish he wasn’t going.”
“I dunno. Everything’s always about him.” His lower lip jutted out.
At the beach, her father, young and tan and tall, taught them how to body-surf. “You estimate where the wave will break,” he told the two children, “and you wait there, in dive-position. When the wave comes, you jump, and let yourself float, and the wave will carry you to shore.” He stood in the waves, bending at the waist, beads of saltwater running down his relaxed face. He demonstrated, riding the wave gracefully as a dolphin, sliding up the sand as far as the wave would reach. When the foam receded, her father jumped up, waving his arms in victory.
She copied him, basking in his attention at last. The cold water slid against her skin. Daring to open her eyes, she found herself hovering on the wave’s crest like a flash of white foam. The beach hurtled toward her. Laughing, she crashed onto the sand, sat up in the surf, and shouted out, “I did it, Daddy!” Just then, Will popped up from the waves coughing up seawater and crying.
“Where did those instructions go?” Robert’s voice comes from the bathroom. “Cesar, go look for those papers that came in the box.”
Cesar’s feet pad out of the bathroom and into the hallway. He cranes his neck left and right, searching for the misplaced instructions.
“Now we alternate, round, stretch, round, stretch,” Lydia’s mother goes on, so intent on the therapy session that she seems to have forgotten that anyone else is present. “Good!”
Lydia watches as her father alternately smiles and coos. Five reps. Cesar enters the parlor on stocking feet. He lifts a needlepoint pillow. Nope. Not there.
“Now, tight, loud kisses,” Lydia’s mother and father blow kisses at each other, like the little kisses her father used to give her mother as he left for the office every day. “Got a train to catch,” he’d call, already out the door. As a child Lydia wondered about that mysterious place, Philadelphia, where the train took him every day. “On business” was one of Lydia’s earliest words, her mother had once told her. This time, she counts ten reps.
Cesar kneels on the rug near Lydia’s feet and shoves his nose under the sofa.
A short dark-haired woman enters the parlor. This must be the aide. “I found these in the hallway ” the unfamiliar person speaks with the slightest hint of a Spanish accent.
“Daddy needs those,” cries Cesar, jumping to his feet, yanking the booklet from her fingers. “Daddy and me are fixing Pop-Pop’s shower so he can sit down.”
“And who is this, Mr. Bradford?”
After a moment, her father says, “M-mo-y bro-ther.”
“Actually his grandson my son. I’m Lydia,” she babbles, “You must be Inez.” She thrusts out her right hand. “Glad to meet you.”
“What a handsome grandson, Mr. Bradford! Bet you can’t get enough of him!”
Lydia laughs in a weary way, aware that Cesar looks more like Inez than like her own blonde, blue-eyed family, and aware, too, that sometimes her father gets more than enough of Cesar. In her father’s world, men pass around documents while children look out silently from photos on office walls.
Last Thanksgiving, for example, only six weeks before her father sat at the head of the dining-room table, dressed in his business suit and silk tie, even though it was just family. Not even all of the family, since, as usual, Will had made his excuses. At the orderly table, Cesar’s elbow knocked his tall glass, spattering grape juice all over the white linen tablecloth. Lydia saw her father wince. When his jaw began to grow tight, Lydia’s mother brightly suggested, “Cesar! I have a new video I think you’ll like,” and shuffled him into the parlor.
Now, the dining room has been set up with a hospital bed, the huge cherry table pushed up against the wall, blocking the fireplace. The Oriental rug has been rolled up to accommodate the walker, exposing the dining room floor.
Suddenly in the spotlight, Cesar buries his head in the instruction book. “Extra long hose lets you wash while seated,” he reads, “On-off control lets you save water.” Still reading, he heads toward the bathroom. “Daddy, I found it!”
“You’ve got your hands full, I can see!” Inez chuckles.
Lydia smiles inwardly. She admits she’s impatient to rush home from work precisely at five o’clock, because she can’t wait to see Cesar’s pudgy face. She’s happy to turn down extra cases, to let her associates handle most of the business travel. At bedtime, when her son jumps up and down on her bed, relaying the details of his first-grade day, she knows she should reprimand him but her heart jumps on the bed with him, her soul lifts toward the ceiling overhead, and beyond. He has the energy and charm of many children all rolled into one, and for this she is grateful, because he will be the only one, the child they traveled to another hemisphere to find.
Inez notices the papers in Mom’s hands. “Oh, good, Mr. Bradford! You’re doing your speech exercises. And don’t forget your reading.” She picks up a book off the sideboard and lays it on the coffee table.
Lydia immediately recognizes the blue and red illustrations and black outline. It is a brand-new copy, not the one her mother had read to her as a child. “The Cat in the Hat?”
Lydia’s mother swivels toward her and opens the book on the table in front of her. Casting a brief worried glance at Dad, she answers quickly as if trying to sell something she knows nobody wants. “The speech therapist recommended it.” There are pencil markings splitting the words into syllables.
“But, Mom,” Lydia starts, “Isn’t there something more appropriate?” Lydia looks at her father. He’s listening. She wants to say, this is my father, who argued a case before the Supreme Court but she doesn’t. “Daddy.” Lydia stands up, grabs the book. The pages flutter and a Post-It note flies out but she ignores it and stalks past her mother and a startled-looking Inez, over to her father. “Daddy. Don’t you mind reading a kids’ book?”
She watches as his eyes slide up to meet hers. His voice is soft but firm. “N-n-no.”
“You’re sure, Dad? Maybe we can find something else.”
“We finished, Mommy!” Cesar exclaims, running in from the bathroom with Robert smiling behind him. “Come see what we did!”
Lydia shakes her head with resignation as Cesar grabs her hand. As she’s dragged to the bathroom, Lydia can hear her father begin to read. “I sut there with Sal-ly.”
Behind her back, she can hear Inez respond, “Very good, Mr. Bradford!”
If her father doesn’t mind (she tells herself) she shouldn’t mind either.
In the bathroom, Cesar beams with pride, demonstrating the new hand-held shower. “See?” He holds the showerhead and waves it round his body, pantomiming spraying himself with imaginary water. He closes his eyes. “Aaaaah!” he cries.
Lydia can’t help but laugh. She touches his black hair.
A few moments later, they return to the parlor. Lydia sits, and Cesar tumbles into her lap, his chunky little body squirming against her. Robert plunks himself down with the instruction manual.
“So-o all we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!” her father is still reading, his brow furrowed, his fingers brushing the page.
Even though he struggles to control his tongue and lips, her father’s voice wraps nicely around the words and rhythm, settling over her shoulders like an afghan shawl. “Shhhh,” she says, although for once Cesar is quiet. “Pop-Pop is reading.” The little boy slides away from her lap. She watches from the corner of her eye as Cesar drifts quietly across the room, the toes of his green socks still flapping. Lydia notices but has her father? that Cesar has worked his way to his grandfather’s side, looking over his shoulder at the book. She feels herself begin to stand. Then she holds back.
“And we dud not like it.”
Cesar’s husky little voice chimes in, “Not one little bit.”
Lydia waits, holding her breath. Something inside of her stands in dive position, waiting for the wave to come.
Daddy looks at the source of the interruption, the little brown boy standing next to him, his head bent over the book. The left side of Daddy’s face moves, one side of his lip working. He looks directly at Cesar. The furrow on his brow slowly melts. He turns very deliberately back to the book. “And then some-thing went BU-UMP-P!”
Cesar turns his face to his mother. His wide eyes seem to ask, Okay?
In slow motion, Lydia nods, Yes.
“How that bump made us jump!” Cesar takes his turn.
Daddy and Cesar bow over the book together like members of the same congregation sharing a prayer-book.
“W-e-e lo-o-ok-ed!” Lydia’s father reads.
“And we saw him step in on the mat!”
“And we saw him!”
“The Cat in the Hat!”
Lydia watches as her son enjoys a piece of her father that was never quite hers.
“I know it is wet, and the sun is not sunny.”
“But we can have,”
“Lots of good fun that is funny!” Cesar smiles his toothy grin into his grandfather’s face.
Lydia’s father looks up from the book, returning Cesar’s smile. For a moment, Lydia can see all the way to the other side of the continent, where her brother Will turns his head, as if he’s heard a noise behind him.
“Your partners should see you now, Dad,” Lydia laughs.
A blush the color of sunset floods her father’s face as he looks directly at his daughter.
Inez bends to pick up the wayward Post-It Note that flew out of the book. “The bookmark,” she murmurs. “We never read this far before.”
Lydia’s eyes tack across the room and into the seascape again. Her imagination climbs onto the back of the old plaster horse, riding the choppy waves, landing hard in the troughs between them, tasting the saltwater as the spray stings in her eyes and tongue. In the valley between the mountainous surges of water, she loses sight of the ship and even the sky. In the distance she sees for the first time the beam of a lighthouse. Following the light, she rides on the broad swells out toward the horizon and the vanishing point.