Kate was expecting. Imminently. It was the last, frantic week in December, a Saturday, and they had Matt's sons to entertain. Christmas was in two days and frigid weather kept the boys inside. They ricocheted around the house, fighting and spatting. Kate's mother, too ill to live alone any longer, had arrived in October. For better or worse, she'd grown accustomed to boisterous Saturdays. Now Kate pushed open the door to her mother's room, then stepped in and shut it firmly behind her.
"Oh, no, you don't," her mother said. "Get out there and help him."
"What can I do?" Kate said. "Anyway, I'm sorry it's so loud. How are you feeling?"
"Every day, a little better. Tomorrow, no more meals on trays." She was sitting up in her chair. She always moved to the chair the minute she heard the boys arrive, as though to participate, even if she couldn't bring herself to leave her room. She smiled wanly. "Kids are all loud. Don't you remember how you used to fight with your brothers? Like cats in a sack some days."
Kate moved to her mother's bedside table to clear the lunch dishes. "I think it's because they're here, with us. Not in their own house. They get so fixated on each other."
"Well, of course, but I'd wager they do the same at home." She raised her brows in an expression that only emphasized her weariness. "You're only a small part of it, Kate."
Kate smiled ruefully. "I'm so gargantuan, I don't know how I could be a small part of anything."
"Oh, what do you care how big you are," her mother said, "as long as that baby is healthy." She struggled to sit more upright in her chair just as the boys crashed by in the hallway, lurching against the closed door. Kate saw her wince as something hard -- perhaps the plastic Nerf gun they'd brought with them -- cracked sharply against the wall.
Kate realized she would have to empty the house, at least for a few hours. She herself was as much a problem as the kids. If she weren't here, so aware of her mother's "recovery," Katherine would get into bed and rest. She'd agreed to chemo so that she could "live to see this baby." No one had promised a cure, but they hoped for what the doctors called a dramatic, temporary response. Kate grew larger as her mother grew smaller, buying time. Katherine had recently finished her second treatment. The X-rays already showed improvement, but the season had seemed endless. Through dank November and early snow, Katherine's chemotherapy had raged in the house like a banked fire, gobbling the air here, lighting up this or that corner. By its glow Kate opened boxes her mother's friends had packed -- the christening dress Kate and her brothers had worn home from the hospital, the tiny hand-knit sweater with angora cuffs, still buttery and perfect in its tissue paper. "Newborns wore yellow then," her mother said. "There were no amnios, just that moment of truth. And so exhilarating!"
Now Kate stacked the plates and cups and turned with the tray. This room was far from where they'd started. Katherine had passed on her own name to her daughter, as though to stake a claim or hope. Meant to be her mother's daughter, Katherine's diminutive, Kate was now the taller, stronger one, the caretaker. She'd always been Kate, never Kathy or Katherine, in a version of her father's face, his light hair and eyes, straight nose and Scots chin, but it was her mother's voice she heard in her head like a counterpart, pervasive as atmosphere. "I think we're going out," she told Katherine. There were frantic cries from downstairs, a sign someone had suffered a major insult. Kate knew all their cries, though it wasn't usually she who rushed to aid or intervene. They wanted their father; of course they did. "Get some rest while it's quiet," she told her mother. "Promise me."
But her mother only smiled and waved her away.
In the hall, Kate balanced the tray on her round abdomen and pulled the door to. Somehow this deepest, darkest phase of New England winter brought out the beast in Sam and Jonah. The big Christmas tree had been up for weeks -- too many -- and stood twinkling like an outpost, vibrating as the boys veered to and fro. They ate breakfast, played board games, dominoes, badminton, I Spy and hide-and-seek, all of which degenerated until Matt and Kate bundled them into Matt's Volkswagen van in self-defense and looked for somewhere, anywhere, to take them.
They all needed to get out. Kate was so pregnant that walking over the ice seemed hazardous, and she'd stayed in the house for days. She'd brought home mounds of work from the publishing house where she edited nonfiction. Since Katherine's arrival, Kate had worked from home, an arrangement that would segue into maternity leave and, Kate hoped, ensuing freelance employment. As for her own writing, lines she'd nurtured floated in her head, but their means of connection seemed to elude her. She knew better than to stack the words, like bricks. Words could be walls enclosing her if she wrote too fast or too soon, yet the two slim volumes of poems she'd published seemed to her increasingly minimal and past tense -- gestures made in another life. She'd finished only three poems in the months of her pregnancy, and all of them concerned her mother, as though, despite the resistance of her conscious mind, nothing else inhabited her heart.
Today she'd paced, rather laboriously, after the kids tired of Battleship and Operation, and done housework. Standing at the kitchen table, she wrapped a few last presents in flocked red foil. The baby's head had been engaged for almost a week, and Kate was too uncomfortable to sit in a chair. She had to stand, or tilt herself in a very particular fashion, and that worked better on beds or in cars. Riding around in the van was a relief, and Kate was a little nervous about staying at home without Matt for what would become an interminable wait. Matt was an internist and Kate could always reach him by phone at the HMO, but he tended to be gone for hours when he took off on weekends with the kids, as though he fell into them and got lost. Kate supposed the kids felt similarly about Matt's time with her -- that he disappeared into a nameless maw on Mondays and Tuesdays and Thursdays, the days he didn't see them. Nameless because they weren't allowed to say Kate's name in front of their mother. "I know what her name is," she'd told the kids, "but I don't have to hear it in my own house." Kate thought her uncharitable, given that Matt had never acted that way about her boyfriend, in the months after she told him she had one, back when their marriage was breaking up. She'd moved into a friend's house in order to continue to explore her options, and at some point during that period Matt had met Kate. By the time Matt's wife realized he'd met someone, it was nearly Christmas (last Christmas), and the pull of hearth and home grew suddenly intense. She moved back in, and Matt moved out, into his own apartment. In a few weeks, he was living at Kate's. Matt and his wife, a legal aid lawyer, began something called divorce mediation; it seemed as though they might go on mediating for several years. Then Kate realized she was pregnant.
And now here they all were. It was December 23. Wreaths tied to the grilles of trucks shuddered, their plastic bows flapping. Snow blew across the highway in little swirls. Like puffs of spirit, Kate thought, wandering souls. Sam and Jonah were bouncing up and down in the big backseat, trying to see if they could touch the ceiling with their heads. "Guys," Kate said, "what about your seat belts? We've already blasted off, and you're not strapped in."
"Right," Matt added, "and here comes a shower of asteroids."
"What's asteroids?" Jonah asked.
"Space rocks, dummy," Sam answered. "They land and they make a big hole."
"Something sure made holes in this road. Where are we, anyway?" Matt glanced at Kate apologetically. "Sorry. I guess I should have headed downtown, toward civilization and smoother terrain."
"Well," Kate said, "it's pretty here. Look, there's the harbor. Downtown is across the water. Oh, I know where we are. That's the Kennedy Library. Let's go there."
"You've never been?" Matt slowed for the rotary, but didn't put his blinker on for a turn. "Here you've tramped all over India and Nepal, and you haven't taken in the hot tourist spots of your own adopted city."
"Hot tourist spot? Really? Should I bring Mom here when she's better?" Kate peered through the broad curved windshield of the van.
"Is she going to get better?" Jonah asked.
Kate turned and smiled at him. At least he'd asked. Maybe they did wonder. "She's actually better already. It's just that the medicine still makes her a little sick." But he was staring out the window as the hulking edifice by the water came into view. It glared white, lit in the winter sun, massive and lonely, and the surface of the water beside it rippled. One long wall formed a wavy curve between the building and the sea. "There's no one around," Kate said.
"There is so," Jonah protested. "I see cars parked in front."
"Dad," Sam said, "what is this place?"
"It's a kind of museum about President Kennedy. Do you know who he was?" Matt continued to circle the rotary.
"You missed the entrance," Kate said. "See the sign? You have to take that access road over to the -- "
"I think I know," Sam said.
"You always think you know everything, Sam," Jonah said, "but you don't."
"I know a lot more than you," Sam said. "You're only in first grade. I'm two years ahead of you."
"You both know a lot," Kate said. "Kids these days know so much, so much earlier than they used to. Jonah, you know a lot more than I did when I was six."
He looked at her pensively. Big brown eyes and blond curls. So much smaller than Sam, so much more comfortable. "Did you know about divorces?" he asked.
"I did know about them," Kate said. She willed herself not to break Jonah's gaze, not to look at Matt. "I didn't know very much, because my parents weren't divorced until I was a teenager. But you know about other things too, like the space program. When I was six, no American rocket ship had ever landed on the moon."
"Mom gave me a puzzle of the solar system," Sam said. "It has every planet. I know all about space."
"You do," Kate said, "and this museum tries to tell people all about the life of a man, John Kennedy. He was a president of the United States who was assassinated."
"What's that, Dad?" Jonah asked.
"Killed," Sam said.
"He was shot," Matt said, "by a man with a gun who was far away."
"He was riding in a convertible," Kate said, "in a parade."
"Oh, yeah," Sam said, "I think I heard about it."
"Dad, Dad," Jonah shouted, "turn up the radio. That's my best song!"
They circled, blasted by phrases, until Matt drove onto the access road and into the parking lot. The museum rose into the air on its spit of land. One white rounded wall three stories high followed the contours of the cliff to a rocky bar of beach. The flat water of Boston Harbor existed there, unmoving; across its gulf lay the towers of the city, a few abstract shapes quite separate from each other, like a grouping of blocks. The far-flung runways of Logan Airport were discernible off to the right. Toy-size airplanes streaked toward home in straight lines, trying hard to stop, all silent as a game on a screen.
Where are we? Kate thought. We could be anywhere. But we're here.
"Everyone out," said Matt, and the boys bolted from the car.
Kate followed them with her eyes. Just as her mother had lived nowhere but home, Matt and his sons had lived nowhere but here -- Matt in the nearby seaside town where he'd grown up before going to college near Boston, the children in their suburb. Sam and Jonah disappeared behind Matt before Kate could even hoist herself from her seat. They ran, these boys, as though their lives depended on triumph -- one would get to the doors of the museum first, the other would know defeat. Exhausting, Kate thought, so many contests an hour, a day, a week. No wonder they seemed to turn to blows at the slightest provocation. They fought with an immediate violence that amazed her. On such occasions they had to be saved from themselves, but in general they felt entitled to any space they inhabited, and this amazed Kate as well. Her own mother had taught children to notice spaces held sacrosanct by others. Was she right or wrong?
Matt stood holding open the passenger door of the van, waiting for Kate. "Honey, ready to go?"
Kate smiled. "I guess I'd better be." She climbed out of the bus, cumbersome in boots and mittens, her big stomach hidden in the bulky coat. It occurred to her that Matt seldom called her by name. She wasn't herself anymore; she'd become a term of endearment. She was dear to him. What was dear to him, therefore, must grow dear to her.
"They'll wait for us," Matt said.
Matt and Kate walked the length of the parking lot. The air was pale blue, leaden with cold. The winter water spread along one side of the horizon like smooth slate. "Funny how we never thought of stopping by here before," Matt said softly, resigned. "I suppose it's educational. 1963. Let me think about it before I get inside."
Kate nodded. "I was in grade school. I had a male teacher for the first time, the only one in the school. Mr. Norris."
She'd looked up to him. His approval meant more to Kate than the approval of women, which was more readily obtained, more easily expressed. Mr. Norris was a big man with a quiet, definite presence and a slow drawl to his voice. He would be principal as soon as the older, balding Mr. Hanover, who was a diabetic, retired. Mr. Norris would sit on the bookshelf, leaning against the wall by the big schoolroom windows, while they read off the answers to their arithmetic homework. Arithmetic had been the curse of Kate's existence. That day, the trees beyond the old pocked glass of the windows were naked. The leaves had fallen and were nearly colorless now, dry, layered. The afternoon sky was blue. Mr. Hanover walked into the room unannounced and said loudly, over their heads, as though they were invisible, "The president's been shot." "What?" Mr. Norris stood suddenly, forcefully, and moved forward as though to perform some urgent action. But there was nothing to be done.
"I remember that arithmetic stopped," Kate said aloud. "I felt guilty because I was relieved -- I hadn't finished my homework. They turned on the intercom throughout the school so the older kids could hear the radio. Listening, I was scared."
"I was so much older than you, then," Matt said. "A senior in high school."
"Practically a man," Kate joked. Then, worriedly, she looked for the kids. They were gone. "Where are the boys?"
Matt and Kate crossed the lot and were walking up the sidewalk to the doors of the building. "They couldn't have gone anywhere," Matt said. "There's nowhere to go."
There was only down, around the ocean curve of the building, and the boys were there, clambering up and down the rocky bank on the big-windowed sea side of the edifice. They looked so isolated, moving ceaselessly across the plaza, sharply angling between the sheer wall of granite and the edge of the gray, half-frozen water; they seemed to have been blown to this place by some errant wind.
Matt stood watching them. "I wonder who they'll see assassinated."
"Probably everyone," Kate answered.
Matt sighed and put his arm around her. "Gee, does pregnancy always make you so cheerful?"
Kate smiled and shrugged. "You're Jewish. I'm a Primitive Superstitionist. If I say it, maybe it won't happen. You know, appease the gods."
He nodded. "I hear you." He put his fingers to his lips and whistled, and the shrill music of his demand rent the air like a scream. The kids made a last foragers circle and drifted toward them.