Somebody put the baby in Medora’s lap, and a crowd of people gathered at her elbows, as if she might forget – after six babies, nineteen grandchildren, and a horde of great-grandchildren – as if she might forget how to hold a baby. She leaned back to let the baby roll in, the round head coming to rest between her breast and her shoulder, her right arm drawn across the small body. The eyelids were still thick and red with the sleep of the womb, the head warped from the pressure of birth.
“Granny,” said one of the fluttering crowd, “this is your first great-great-granddaughter. She’s named Medora, for you.”
Medora held the baby for a while, and people took pictures. Then the mother – her great-granddaughter Anne – took the little Medora away, and most of the young people left, taking most of the children. They would come back later, with birthday cake. Anne stayed, putting the baby in a complicated stroller that looked as if it could fly to the moon.
“My mom’s gone to get your cake,” Anne said. “With one hundred and six candles.”
“I don’t feel a day over ninety.” Medora had made the same joke on her birthday ever since she turned eighty, and Anne laughed respectfully, as they all did. This was one of the advantages of being old.
“What’s the first thing you remember?” Anne asked. A week didn’t go by without somebody asking this: that was a disadvantage.
“The day of the big dinosaur hunt,” Medora said, and Anne laughed again, with the same dutiful respect; but it was a lie. The first thing Medora remembered was the day she was named.
It was summer, a brown summer, the sky blazing blue every day, and thunderstorms that turned the air inside out. The latch on the gate was broken, and she swung on it, pushing herself back with her feet, and then tilting her body forward until the gate clashed shut and the broken latch rattled. The dog lay in the shade, the cats had disappeared into their own private worlds, the older sisters went here and there about their work, and Senor Alvarez paraded his biddies into the yard and kept them all in an anxious chattering group, rushing at them if any tried to escape. Every time they came near the gate, she slammed it shut. They clucked at her and scattered, and Senor Alvarez flamed his red crest, puffed his purple throat, and darted around the yard, gathering them together. She had a handful of chickenfeed in her pocket, and whenever Senor Alvarez let his biddies rest, she would fling out a few grains to fuss them up again.
Big sister Margaretta came through the yard with a basket of wet sheets and said, “Baby, you quit agitating them fowl, they’ll drop dead in this heat.” Baby waited until Margaretta had gone around the house, and then she threw out another handful of feed.
The road was so hot, the air boiled and shook. There was a line of purple in the air, like the brightest color in Senor Alvarez’s throat. The purple line thickened into a tall blue smudge, and the smudge wobbled, twisted, came nearer without apparently moving, and suddenly a man stood on the road, just outside the gate. He wore a gray suit and gray shoes, and his hair was the same gray, smooth and rich, like a leather cap.
“I need to know your name,” he said. A hot, soft smell came off him: peaches brown with rot, a smell full of wasps. “I need to know who you are,” he said.
Baby slammed the gate. She wished that she hadn’t broken the latch, but it was too late now. She backed away from the gate and dropped a handful of chickenfeed at her feet, while the biddies gathered around her in a fluttering noisy mass, and Senor Alvarez rushed at them, enraged.
The broken gate swung away from the gray man’s hand, and he came into the yard. “I’m the census taker,” he said. “I need to take everybody’s name. Is this the Lake family home?”
Baby shook her head. Another big sister came out of the house, flapping her skirt at the biddies. “Baby, they’ll kill each other if you don’t spread the feed,” she scolded.
“Mrs. Lake,” the gray man said. Baby wrinkled her nose at the smell of hot fruit.
“No. I’m Annie. Mama’s poorly.”
“Miss Lake, I’m the census taker. I need to know how many people live here, and their names and ages.”
And big sister Annie stood there and told the gray man their names, everybody’s name from old Grampa Buford down to the smallest big sister Tommie, “and this is the baby,” Annie finished.
“I need her real name.”
“We just call her Baby. We’ve run out of girl names.”
It was true. The older sisters had two or three names each, Margaretta June and Catherine Electa and Ava Birdie Pernel, and even Annie, the seventh, was Coral Anne Bella; but the tenth and eleventh were Johnnie and Tommie with no middle names, and Baby, the youngest, had no name at all at four years old.
“She needs a name,” the gray man said. “I can give her one.”
Baby did not need a name. In particular, she did not want one given her by the gray man who had walked out of the boiling air. She tugged big sister Annie’s skirt and whispered, “No, no, no,” but Annie paid no attention.
“Elinor,” the gray man said.
“No,” Baby said.
“I’ll go in and ask Mama,” Annie said, and she walked away, leaving Baby with the gray man.
“You go away,” she said. “You go right away from here.”
“You can’t go on with not having a name. Everybody has to have a name, and yours is Elinor.”
“I don’t want it.”
Senor Alvarez finally realized that the chickenfeed was in Baby’s pocket. This came as a puzzle and a surprise to him every day. He dashed at his biddies, driving them away from Baby, and strutted before her, flourishing his wings and crying urgent musical half-crows. He was a magnificent rooster, jeweled like a dragon, and when he stood tall, his crest came to Baby’s shoulder. She had raised him from a new-hatched chick, a ball of brown and gold fluff as light as a captured breath. He pranced before her, then lowered his head and snaked it at the gray man with a furious hiss.
The gray man took a step back, but he said, “It’s your name now, yours forever.”
“No, no, no!” Baby shrieked. She hurled a double handful of chickenfeed over the gray man’s shoes, and Senor Alvarez and all the biddies mobbed him in a mass. He kicked out and shouted as they drove him to the gate and out into the road.
“Goodbye, Elinor,” he called.
By the time Annie came out to say that their mother thought Elinor was a beautiful name as long as it was Christian, he was gone, a blue flicker drawn back into the shaking air. Senor Alvarez lay dead, his feathers as bright as ever but his bright black eyes fading, his neck broken by a kick from the gray shoes. “Nothing wrong with this bird that three hours in the pot can’t mend,” Annie said. She took him inside to clean and pluck him, leaving Baby, now Elinor, to feed the fowl.
One hundred and two years ago that was, and she had never seen anything as red as that rooster’s crest. The century passed like the shadow of a hawk over a field. She’d never told the story to her children or grandchildren, but maybe it was time to tell it, maybe to this great-granddaughter Anne, named for the big sister who’d been dead herself for seventy years. Maybe to the young man who came around the facility sometimes with his camera, asking the old people questions about what it was like when they were young.
“When I was young,” she’d told him last time, “I didn’t know how happy I was. I didn’t know how good it feels to be healthy and strong. I could walk wherever I wanted. I could trust my bones.” He’d laughed and agreed with her; the young did not appreciate their youth. She shook her head at him. He was only fifty and numbered himself already among the old. He’d never make his century. She didn’t want to talk to him again, not even to tell him the story of Senor Alvarez and the gray man, because she wasn’t old. She had lived a hundred and two years since that day, but she was still that nameless child, Baby swinging on the broken gate, flying through the thundery air.
She must have slept, one of those soft light sleeps that came to her sometimes. She didn’t feel them at all. She felt only that a screen had flicked before her eyes, and the people around her changed. This was a new kind of sleep, odd and frightening, and she hadn’t told any of her doctors about it yet; but the room was full of relatives again, and one of the children had found her remote control and turned on the television. Cartoons. Talking cars that turned into robots. One of her great-grandsons had taken her out to buy shoes last week, and his car spoke to him and told him where to drive. “Soon they’ll be driving themselves,” she’d said. When it was time to park, he showed her how he could let go of the wheel and it parked itself. She’d thought she was joking, but it was real. “Does it fly?” she asked, half serious.
Long ago when she was Baby, and slightly less long ago when she was Elinor Lake, her father came home drunk and sleeping on the mule’s back and the mule would take itself into the barn. A hundred years later, and the smartest cars around still weren’t as smart as a good mule. She might tell that to the young man from the university, the next time he came.
“Turn that off, Justin,” Anne said. Medora thought Justin was Anne’s little brother, but maybe they were cousins; she could never be sure about the great-grandchildren.
“That’s all right, I like it,” Medora said. She patted the arm of her chair. “Come and tell me what’s happening. Is that a bad guy?”
“That’s the good guy. His name’s Optimus Prime.”
Medora let the child rattle on. It made a nice change, to have so many people in the room, so many of the little ones all at once. They could play with each other or watch the television together, instead of fidgeting and yawning and looking at her, wondering what was the use of coming to see their great-grandmother and how long their parents would make them stay. Medora was still thinking about the car that parked itself. She watched the show with little Justin for a few minutes, and said, “They must get terrible gas mileage.”
“Look at the size of them. And all those weapons. Walking around on robot feet like that, it’s not very efficient, there’s a reason we use wheels. Who pays for their gas? Do robots have credit cards?”
“They’ve got an alien power source,” Justin explained.
“It must be nice to be some people,” she grumbled.
Justin was – how old? She rubbed his soft brown hair – probably about ten. By the time she was his age, she was used to being called Elinor, but deep down, there was always a sparkle of Baby, an instant response no whenever she heard her name. When she was sixteen, all grown up though younger than great-granddaughter Anne was today, that sparkle had driven her off the farm, all the way to the big city. San Antonio. And there she had met Willson Fennick, who had a kind of sparkle too, or at least he had very shiny hair, and such clean white hands. There was a man who’d never slopped a pig. Oh, how she loved him. It was 1922, and she cut her hair short and wore dresses that made Grampa Buford call her the spawn of Jezebel, when she went back to the farm for the quilts she had sewn as a child; her gold bangles were pinchbeck, but her rings were real diamonds.
She was Elinor Fennick. Elinor Lake died at the door of the farmhouse, murdered in Grampa Buford’s mouth. Dead to me. Dead to this family forever. Harlot. Elinor Fennick bleached her brown hair gold and painted her mouth. Willson was a clerk at South Pacific and they lived in a little house near Sunset Station, and the money that flowed through that house was incredible, terrifying. He was a good card player as long as he was winning. He won for four years. But then he started to lose. He lent money and couldn’t get it back. He borrowed money and couldn’t pay it back.
He came home drunk, and in the mornings the twenty-year-old Elinor, with baby Mariana on her hip, told him what he had done the previous night. If he won a little, she told him he’d lost. If he won more, she gave him half the money.
On the farm, her education had been a haphazard effort by the big sisters, with occasional bouts of rigorous Bible study with Grampa Buford. Now she paid a neighbor to watch Mariana while she took business classes, learned typing and shorthand. She took Willson’s winnings and bought diamond rings, although she told him they were rhinestones; she replaced her pinchbeck bangles with real gold. She rolled twenty-dollar bills into the smallest possible pellets and sewed them into Mariana’s blanket, disguising the stiffness with embroideries of bright purple feathers. When she walked, her strong young feet pushed her up into a skipping half-run, and in the storm of her fears and her worries and her plans, she did not know that she was happy.
Willson lost, borrowed money, lost again. Men came to the little house, looking for money. She always kept a few dollars in the sugar jar. They followed the nervous glance of her eyes, dumped the sugar onto her kitchen floor, and took the money. Then she swept up the dirty sugar and poured it back into the jar with another five or ten dollars hidden in it. She kept clean sugar in a paper bag in a drawer. As long as she lived in her own home, until she was ninety-seven, she had the habit of keeping a jar of sugar on the counter but never using it.
One thundery day, she sat in her kitchen with all the windows open, hoping for some air. Mariana, two years old, was fussy with the heat and teething; she sat under the kitchen table, gnawing on a carrot. Elinor Fennick, her gold hair brown again, had found one of her farmhouse quilts gnawed by mice. She was cutting up an old shirt of Willson’s to patch it, when a gray shadow came into the room, and the smell of hot fruit, the odor of wasps and decay. Elinor stood up, stepped forward, floated the quilt over the table so that the folds draped to the floor, hiding Mariana.
With the sound of a stranger’s footstep on the floor, the back door quietly closed. Willson had been asleep, but he woke to danger as an animal would, and he always stepped out when men came for money, knowing that Elinor would save him. She clasped her hands behind her back, turning her rings so that the diamonds were hidden and only the platinum bands would show, plain as silver.
“I want what I’m owed,” the gray man said. “I’ve come to collect.”
He walked into the house, and Elinor’s blood drummed run, run, save yourself, through her heart, but there was the baby under the table, and so she stayed. “I don’t know you,” she said.
“I know you, Elinor Lake.”
He took her right hand, turned it palm up, pulled her fingers straight, and the handful of diamonds lay between them, glittering white. She tried to close her fingers, but the hand was not her own. It lay limp and open in his smooth palm.
“No,” she said. He let her take her hand back, and she rubbed life into her fingers. Her bangles clashed with the chime of real gold. She glanced at the sugar jar. He lifted the quilt off the table and looked at the wet-eyed baby, mouth stained orange with carrot juice. “No,” she said.
“I’ve come to collect what I’m owed.”
Elinor knelt to gather the baby into her arms. It was all she could do to pull Mariana close to her body. The baby gurgled and offered her a taste of carrot, and she shook her head. She looked down, away from the gray man’s face; she lowered her face into the baby’s sweet-smelling hair. She closed her eyes. “My husband’s outside,” she said.
The gray man turned on his heel and walked out the front door. From the back, there was a shout and a loud sound that made Mariana blink and purse her mouth angrily. Somebody, Elinor never knew who – somebody who had lent Willson money – had been waiting for him in the alley.
Two days later, she stood in her kitchen, Mariana in her arms again, while men searched her house. Not content with the sugar jar, they upended and emptied everything. They tore the cabinets off the walls and cut open her mattress. They found a hidden billfold with ninety dollars in it, a ruby ring that had belonged to Willson’s mother, and a string of glass pearl beads in a box from the best jeweler in San Antonio. They never touched Elinor’s cheap-looking stack of bangles, or the diamond rings that she had tied to a bunch of keys with red thread, or the baby’s blanket with almost two thousand dollars stitched into the purple feathers. It was Elinor Fennick who got on the westbound train to California and the sea, and Medora Hart who arrived, a fair young widow with a child in her arms and – as she was soon to realize – another on the way. That was her sweet James, who died in Korea.
The rings and bangles she’d bought with Willson’s money were long gone now. Her arthritis was so bad, she didn’t wear jewelry any more. She’d sold some of the things, that first year in California when it was so hard to find work. The rest she’d given away to her granddaughters and great-granddaughters over the years. She always gave a piece of fine jewelry when one of her girls graduated from college. She wished she had something to give Anne, for the little Medora someday.
As if she heard the thought, the baby began to cry the milk cry, and Medora’s heart prickled in memory. Anne sat with the baby in the chair in the corner and opened her blouse, right there in front of everybody, and Justin hunched his shoulder and carefully kept his face turned away from that side of the room.
The air felt like thunder. It was one of Medora’s dangerous days, and the white sleep flashed across her eyes again. When she woke up, somebody had changed the television over to golf, and Justin was playing with his Nintendo. He tried to explain the game, but she couldn’t even see the screen.
Twice she had seen the gray man face to face, but she learned the smell and feel of him, and she avoided him for years. The feel of thunder far off, the shivering heat of that summer day when she was Baby for the last time, the smell of rotting fruit.
Once she felt his presence at the beach, a summer day, baby Harold eating handfuls of sand under the beach umbrella, her second husband Jack – a lovely man, a dancer – letting the three older children bury him in the sand. She gathered the family up and took them home. Two people drowned that day, dragged out by the undertow. Once she smelled overripe peaches in a restaurant, and she made Jack take her somewhere else. The restaurant had an electrical fire that night, and three people were burned, though not badly. Once, years later, she stood in line at the American Airlines check-in counter to fly to New York, where her oldest grandchild was graduating from Stonybrook with a degree in, of all things, saxophone (bless his heart), when she looked up and saw the cashier’s head, a smooth leathery gray. She stepped out of line and walked away.
Absolutely nothing happened to the airplane. Maybe she had never saved herself at all. Maybe it was all a dream, a hundred and two years passing like a moment of that white sleep, in the clash of the swinging gate. Maybe it was all imagination, a rumor, a mistake.
“Where’s my cake,” she said, “I want cake.” The cooks at the facility were stingy with desserts. Two-inch cubes of cake, tiny bowls of pudding. Fruit salad, which she would not eat. The only time she ever had chocolate was when one of the young people brought her some, and sometimes she went weeks between visits.
“I want cake too,” Justin said.
Medora had been a strict mother – eat your vegetables and sit up straight – but she’d always had cake for the grandchildren, and candy for the great-grandchildren, because by then she’d given up baking, along with so much else. She’d outlived three of her children: James died in Korea, polio took Alice at six, and Ruth lay cold in her crib one morning, seventeen days old. Two of her grandchildren had died, one of cancer, another in a car crash. She’d raised James’s three children after his death. She’d helped her second husband, Jack, turn his dance studio into a real business. He died of lung cancer in 1964, but everybody smoked in those days. The children grew, the world changed, and happiness flickered behind her days like the tail of a kite.
Everybody started to sing Happy Birthday, a ragged chorus that converged by the second line. Under the choir of dear Granny she heard a single voice, low but strong, singing dear Medora. The gray man pushed a silver trolley into the room, with one hundred and six candles blazing, and the icing was as blue as the sky.
Medora said, “No.”
“Granny, are you okay?” Justin asked. Everybody else had gathered around the cake to blow out the candles for her, and he was the only one who heard. He took her hand, gently, careful of her arthritis. Such a sweet boy. He reminded her of dear James.
The gray man smiled at her as he sliced the cake. The knife slid through the blue icing, and the smell poured out, brown and rotten and sweet. He gave the first piece to Anne, a corner piece thick with icing, and Anne passed it to Medora. “I don’t want cake,” Medora said.
Anne passed the plate to Justin. He accepted it unwillingly, and held it out to Medora. “But it’s your birthday, Granny, it’s your cake.”
“I don’t want it.”
One of the granddaughters – Anne’s mother, Raquel – took over the cake-cutting, and the gray man brought a glass of lemonade to Medora. She stuck out her lower lip, a child’s face but she couldn’t stop herself, and said, “I don’t want it. Go away.” The lemonade smelled, but not as badly as the cake. She wouldn’t take anything from him. Her right hand was never the same after he touched it, the day Willson died. Her grip was never as strong again, and her arthritis began in those fingers years before it touched any other joint.
“You might as well eat that, young man,” the gray man said to Justin.
Justin stuck the plastic fork in the cake, but he gave Medora another doubtful look. “Are you really sure, Granny?”
“Medora, Medora!” the gray man said. “Eat your cake.”
The sun was warm on Medora’s hair. Yesterday a nurse had come to give her a sponge bath, so she would be clean and fresh for her birthday party, and had washed her hair with the shampoo she liked, the kind that smelled of medicine and not of flowers. The young people laughed and talked among themselves; cousins who hadn’t seen each other for years had found one another in this room. “Aren’t you having a happy birthday?” Justin asked.
“I am, I am happy. Give me my cake.”
The gray man was gone. The smell came off the cake and it was horrible. Medora put her finger in the icing and licked it, cautiously, making a suspicious face. But it tasted sweet and clean, pure sugar. A hundred years passed like a bird’s shadow, a swinging gate, and she closed her eyes to taste it.