John stood bare chested in front of the bathroom mirror, shaving, half-consciously reaffirming his looks. It was a handsome face that reflected back. Cheekbones strong and exact, a tight city skin that creased here and there for added character. It was a friendly, intelligent face, but at the same time tight, closed, not open to invitation. For all his thirty-three years, he could have done much worse.
A small transistor radio tuned to a news station kept him company while he lost himself in the ritual of shaving.
Anne was already dressed when she stepped into the bathroom. She reached across him, swinging the mirror out, reaching into the medicine cabinet for a bottle of foundation.
"How are you feeling?" he asked her.
"All right, I guess."
"Did you sleep?"
Anne shrugged. "A little."
He noticed that Anne was wearing only a wool sweater coat over her dress. "You're not going out
with just that on, are you?" He pointed to the radio with his razor. "They said the wind-chill factor makes it feel like ten below."
"Where am I going? I'm going from a taxi into the office. Don't worry about it." She was applying blush, shouldering into him to get, a view of herself in the mirror. Against the deep ruddy color on her cheeks she looked dreadfully pale. Colorless. He reminded her to tell the obstetrician about the cramps.
Jenny crowded into the bathroom and threw her day-old underwear into the wicker hamper beside the bathtub. She had on a blue corduroy skirt and was bundled in a red ski jacket and a white knit hat.
Last night's fight was still brewing. No one even considered a smile. John felt like a fool standing there.
Jenny whined. “Ma, I’m gonna be late!”
"Listen," Anne said, working on her eye shadow now. "Are you listening to me?"
"I'm listening!" Jenny fidgeted. That whine in her voice irritated John no end.
"Oooh, I feel sorry for whoever you marry," he told his daughter.
Anne went on as if she hadn't heard. "If I'm not home by the time you get home from school I want you to take the chopped meat out of the refrigerator so it's defrosted by tonight. Make sure you put a plate under it. I don't want blood all over everything."
"Okay! Okay! Can we go now; please?" From outside in the hall Jenny grabbed the illustration board she had pasted the magazine cutouts on. She stood in the doorway of the bathroom huffing impatiently.
"You had better stop that right now, young lady," Anne warned her. "Otherwise, for spite, I'll take my own good time."
“I don’t care. If I fail or get kicked out of school
because I’m late, it’s gonna be your fault. Just don’t blame me when it happens, that’s all.”
Anne glared at her from the mirror, John catching her reflection there, seeing that she was about to lose what little patience she had left. He headed off her flare-up. “Jenny, Daddy’ll take you to school this morning, okay?”
“Don’t do me any favors. I don’t care if I fail, I told you.”
The phone rang. Anne told Jenny to answer it, Jenny didn’t budge.
She refused to move.
“Answer it, I said!”
Jenny turned, paused, and in an I-don’t-give-a-damn tone of voice said, “Don’t care. I’ll be left back. I’ll fail.”
“Good. Fail,” Anne told her, not turning, running lipstick over her mouth. She reared her head back and studied her lips in the mirror. “Damn! Look what she made me do.”
“Anne, don’t get excited. I told you I’d take her.”
“Ma!” he heard Jenny yell from the living room. “It’s Mr. Leble!”
“What does he want now?” Anne whirled out of the bathroom glancing at her watch, murmuring under her breath, “Jesus, look at the time.”
In the bedroom John pulled on a pair of jeans and a bulky knit sweater. The digital on the nightstand said it wasn’t even nine yet. No problem to take Jenny. He didn’t relish the though of getting back to the studio so early anyway, of locking himself away for another ten hours. Sometimes the days seemed as if they would never end.
Anne was still on the phone when he came into the living room, Jenny standing behind her fidgeting. “Are you going to take her?” he heard Anne ask, her hand over the mouthpiece. He nodded that he would. “Do me a favor, John—mail those cards. They’re on the kitchen table.”
Jenny let out a huge sigh and slumped into a chair.
“We’re leaving now,” John told her as he darted into the kitchen. He snatched the cards up off the table and was out, with a see-you-later to Anne. Jenny was still in the chair, unresponsive.
“C’mon, you’ll be late.”
“I’m already late . . . what’s the use?”
Coaxing her up, he ushered her out the door, blocking with his foot the cats that were following them, closing the door behind them.
“Hey, look! It snowed!”
Not much, but it had. Enough to dust everything with a light powder. Tires hissed. Early traffic had already turned the snow in the street to slush. Cars rolled by, throwing out wet sprays. The sky hung just above the buildings.
“Maybe they closed the school today because of this blizzard.” John’s joke didn’t impress Jenny. She kept silent, staring down at the sidewalk, sliding her feet through the snow. She was moving fast, and he had to work to stay with her.
As they rounded the corner the wind blasted them, whipping the montage out of Jenny’s hands and into the air. She let out a cry, but John was close enough to her to catch the board before it went into the street. Jenny was frantic, looking to se if any damage had been done by the slush.
“It’s all right, it’s all right. Nothing happened to it.”
“Let me see, let me see.”
“Nothing happened, Jenny. Look—it’s fine.”
“You see what happens because late.”
“Let me carry it for you.”
“Easy! Be careful with it.”
“Don’t worry. Get away form the street.”
Jenny stopped near a tree and picked up a fallen branch that arched out of the snow. She dragged it alongside her, walking down the block, cutting a valley through the snow that had drifted against the building.
“You know, you guys don’t have to walk me to school anymore,” Jenny said.
John smiled down at her. “Why?” You’re embarrassed by us? You don’t want anyone to see your mother or me?”
“No. But, I mean, Rachel walks by herself now.”
“Rachel’s a year older than you.”
“So what? We’re in the same grade.” She shipped the stick, slashing across the line she had cut in the snow, repeating the motion over and over again as they continued down the block. They crossed Park Avenue heading down toward Lexington, Jenny walking behind her father now, stick still in hand, scrawling in the snow.
A block behind them, a shadow fell over the first of Jenny’s designs in the snow. A hand, covered by a ragged glove cut off at the fingers, began to trace over the pattern, running a finger along the deep valley, then across the slash mark, tracing the first X, the second, then the third.
“It’s the girl,” the black man said.
“Yes. But it is the father who is more important to us.” The cripple squinted against the glare of the snow. “He is the last hope, Joseph. He must be made to understand that.”
“And the girl.”
“She will have to be the one to make him understand.”
“She has to die. Not by your hand, but by his. By the father’s.”