Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Lorrie Moore is the author of several story collections and novels and she has won honors from the Lannan Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Moore has won the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction and the Rea Award for the Short Story. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A Gate at the Stairs was published in 2009.
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It is a cold December in Troy, Wisconsin, in the winter of 2011, and twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjen is looking for a job. She is from a small farm and came to the university town of Troy to attend school, and for her it was like moving from a cave to a bustling civilization. This city is known to the rest of the state as being a “smug, liberal, recycling, civic-minded” place. Troy is an antagonistic town, particularly towards religion; to its citizens, God is “a cross between a billboard, a charlatan, a hamburger, and a fairy king.” In general, Tassie believes “a little’s a dangerous thing. But so is a lot. And so is none.”
Tassie has just finished her college exams for the semester and is looking for a child-care job beginning in January, though she does not particularly like children—at least not for long stretches of time. After five interviews, Tassie arrives at a house which, though somewhat neglected, makes her think of familiar things. It is on a corner lot, and the gate at the fence is loose and missing a nail. The thin woman who answers the door is colorful, a little older than the other women with whom she has interviewed, and not pregnant.
The interview is odd and a bit uncomfortable, but Tassie is generally uncomfortable in these kinds of settings—actually, in most settings. Her roommate, Elizabeth Murphy Krueger (“Murph”) is never at a loss for words; however, Tassie is. The woman is Sarah Brink. She is forty-five years old and owns a classy restaurant in town; she knows Tassie’s father because he used to come to the farmer’s market in Troy to sell his designer potatoes. Sarah and her husband are planning to adopt and want their child’s caretaker to be involved from the beginning.
After the interview, Tassie goes to her lonely apartment in the “student ghetto” on campus, a building abutting the university stadium. Murph is rarely there, as she is practically living with her boyfriend. There is a phone message from Sarah, asking Tassie to call her back; however, she decides to wait until the morning to do so. In the morning, before Tassie can call her back, Sarah calls and tells her she has the job—but it has to begin today. She and her husband are scheduled to meet with the birth mother in a town several hours away, and they want her to come with them. It is a quick decision to make, but Tassie accepts the position.
The drive is quiet. Edward is unable to get out of his meeting, so it is just Sarah and Tassie who arrive at the local Perkins and wait in silence, drinking coffee, until the girl arrives. Amber is young, very pregnant, and wearing an electronic bracelet on her wrist. She wants her child to be baptized and confirmed in a Catholic church, something Sarah readily agrees to even though she is not a Catholic. The woman with Amber, Letitia Gherlich, is quick to tell Sarah and Tassie that the baby’s father is a handsome white man, obviously trying to sell them on the idea of a “handsome white boy-dad.” Sarah’s face is inscrutable and she says nothing to this piece of information.
Before leaving, Sarah gives Amber some advice about doing something worthwhile rather than trying to sell drugs, a job she is obviously not very good at doing. Amber tells her that is exactly what she is trying to do. The ride home is also quiet except for a phone call from Letitia. Tassie tries not to listen, but Letitia is clearly offering to help her find another child if this one cannot be hers. She explains that international adoptions are becoming easier to do, and not all of the children have dark skin. After Sarah quickly hangs up, she tells her she will see Tassie after Christmas.
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Tassie’s younger brother Robert meets her at the bus and drives her home. Neither of them is content in Dellacrosse, a town in which nothing happens, nothing is expected, and nothing changes. Gail, their mother, is Jewish. Robert (shortened to “Bo” to avoid the confusion of two Roberts in the house) is a Protestant. Neither of them is particularly devout, so Christmas is almost a non-event in their home. Robert is a good-looking, bright young man with a lot of friends. Unfortunately, he often answers too quickly on his exams (he blurts) and, as a consequence, he does poorly. Robert is unhappy and doing poorly in school; because he sees few other options, he is planning to enlist in the military. He has heard the war in Afghanistan is over, so he figures he is “not going to get killed or nothing.” Jokingly, he asks his sister not to let them bury him in a huge coffin since he does not want to take up too much space. Tassie just kind of laughs and does not take the conversation too seriously.
Gail is not, and never has been, a good mother. She is disconnected from her children and, though she says she loves her children, “her love is useless.” Robert suffers from the same kind of loneliness Tassie does, though he had always been their mother’s favorite. Robert’s burden is probably heavier, as the pressure to help his father around the farm was far greater for him than for Tassie. Everything Gail does annoys Tassie; on the other hand, nothing her father does annoys her. He does not start drinking until later in the afternoons, and he is content to be a gentleman farmer—even though the “real” farmers around him do not consider him to be one of them.
There are no old friends Tassie is interested in seeing while she is home, so she spends time with her brother, plays her electric bass guitar, and does some extra reading for her classes next semester. Others celebrate the New Year with fireworks and carousing, but Tassie is not interested. This town, her home, and the lives of the people here seem sad, narrow-minded, and desperate to her. On New Year’s Day afternoon, Tassie receives a phone call. It is Sarah Brink, her employer, and she asks if it is possible for Tassie to come back to Troy early—on January third. She knows it is a lot to ask, but both women laugh in a “confusing manner.”
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Tassie takes the virtually empty bus back to Troy and settles back into her apartment. Early the next morning, Sarah calls to tell her to pack an overnight bag—they are going to fly to Green Bay to meet with another prospective birth mother. Edward, again, is away at a meeting and will be flying into Green Bay to meet them. At the airport, Sarah shows her identification rather furtively, as if she is embarrassed of her picture. Tassie has never been in a taxi, not to mention taken a plane, so she is full of nervous excitement. Edward is not in Green Bay when they arrive, and Sarah is distraught for a few moments. They get in their rental car and go to the lawyer’s office.
This birth mother’s name is Bonnie, and she is in her late twenties. The baby is apparently a year old, maybe two, and it is part black. Sarah surmises this is the reason no one has adopted the child yet. The lawyer, Roberta, is a colleague of Letitia’s who recommended Sarah for this baby. Bonnie looks sad and old and in need of adopting herself, Tassie thinks. As they talk, Sarah looks at a rather blurry Polaroid of the little girl. Just then, the elusive Edward appears. His name is Edward Thornwood, he appears to be much older than Sarah and is quite self-absorbed. Tassie sees that while she does not find Edward particularly lovable, Sarah loves him very much. He explains that he is a researcher in the field of eye cancer. Sarah jokes that even with her professional kitchen and Edward’s laboratory, they have not been able to “get anything cooked up between us.” There is an awkward moment in which Tassie knows Sarah has crossed some kind of line—of sensitivity, privacy, or even honesty, though she does not know that for sure until later. Edward looks at her sharply. After Bonnie and Roberta have a short, private conversation, Roberta announces that Bonnie has approved them as her daughter’s new parents.
Though they need to get started on the paperwork the next day, the three decide to celebrate and go out to dinner. Edward makes a toast to Sarah as today is her birthday and tomorrow is their anniversary. When it is time to pay the bill, Edward fumbles for his wallet but concludes he must have left it in the car. Sarah pulls out a credit card and cracks a small joke about it: “For a freak minute [Tassie] believed they were perfect for each other, a feeling [she] would never have again.”
In the morning, the three of them arrive at the home where the baby is, but the woman who lives there, Mrs. McKowan, knows nothing about them or the situation. No one from Catholic Social Services or from Roberta’s office has called to tell her about the adoption or their visit. Reluctantly, she lets them in to see the girl. Hovering in the background is a teenage girl. The child, Mary, is nearly two years old and is in a plastic walker, the kind designed for much younger children. She is cute, and when Mrs. McKowan asks Mary if she wants to go with her new mama, the child says “mama?’ and looks directly at the teenager. It is obvious that this girl has been Mary’s acting mother and has even encouraged the child to call her that.
Sarah, Edward, and Tassie leave the house and go to lunch, an uncomfortable and unsatisfying experience for Tassie. Back at the hotel they go to their own rooms, and Tassie takes a nap. She is awakened by Sarah’s tapping on her door, asking her if she wants to come with them to the hospital for Mary’s physical examination. They are met by another woman, Julie, a worker from another agency. Bonnie has requested the change in agencies, and the “changeover … was a bit dramatic.” Mary appears fine, though, and Tassie thinks she is a beautiful little girl. Sarah takes Mary into the exam while Edward and Tassie examine the medical records. They see nothing more or less extraordinary in them, as every family has its share of colorful history.
They are not allowed to take the thick file when they leave the hospital, nor are they allowed to leave without Julie, as she is still Mary’s legal guardian. Sarah, Mary (in her new car seat) and Tassie sit in the back of the automobile. Sarah announces she will keep the name Mary but plans to add her favorite name, Emma, and a middle name in honor of her grandmother: Mary-Emma Bertha Thornwood-Brink. At the adoption office, Edward and Sarah each sign all the necessary paperwork and then write separate checks to pay the fees. It is an odd thing to see, and Sarah feels the need to explain that they “like things to be even between us…Though usually they’re not even—just odd.” Each writes a check for $9,127.50, and they plan to buy Bonnie a very nice watch, the only remuneration she is allowed to accept for giving them her child.
Mary-Emma has a few possessions jammed into a plastic bag: a few stuffed animals, some plastic blocks, a cardboard alphabet puzzle, and a green blanket. Mary-Emma sleeps on the ride home, and Tassie notices some kind of tension between the other two adults before she, too, falls asleep. She wakes up as they pull up into the driveway of their house in Troy. It is midnight and there is no one in sight. It is an anticlimactic moment, Tassie thinks. Edward offers to drive Tassie home, and the two kid around about Sarah being left alone. Edward and Sarah show “a flash of mutual disgust between them” before Edward takes their babysitter home.
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For several days, Tassie listlessly wanders around her apartment and suffers from insomnia. She receives a check in the mail from Sarah for three hundred dollars; at ten dollars an hour, she does not bother to see if that is too much, too little, or just enough for the two crazy visits to birth mothers. Finally Sarah calls, and Tassie goes to work as an actual babysitter for the first time. Sarah’s directions for taking care of Emmie (which is short for the “M.E.” she had been calling Mary-Emma) are scant and hurried as Sarah goes to her restaurant for the first time in many days. Before leaving, Sarah denigrates her own Jewish heritage (she is half-Jewish, like Tassie) as well as the Catholic and Protestant faiths; she also jokes about the many restaurants on the East Coast which she had owned and which have all failed. After pointing out a few parenting books and a list of instructions (plus the location of the ipecac in case of poisoning), Sarah leaves. In a moment, though, she is back to grab a kitchen knife which she gleefully places in her purse, joking about carrying a concealed weapon.
Tassie has to discover where the child’s room is—a difficult task in this house—and has no idea what or how much Mary-Emma eats. The two of them do seem to become amicable and when Sarah finally comes home, Mary-Emma immediately runs to mother, grasping her leg. Tassie is exhausted when she gets home and, after playing her guitar for a bit, she falls into bed without undressing. The next day she takes Mary-Emma ice skating, and when Sarah gets home from work she barely hides her distress when the child wants to leave her arms and go to Tassie. Sarah seems overly interested in knowing what kind of perfume Tassie is wearing. The adoption is not final for six months; the Thornwood-Brinks are only Mary-Emma’s foster parents during that time.
University classes begin during a dramatic cold spell, followed by a couple of quick warm-ups and several blizzards. In her Intro to Sufism class, Tassie exchanges witty conversation via notes with a Brazilian boy sitting next to her. When she is home, Tassie plays her guitar with her chapped and bleeding fingers. She spends one night at the Thornwood-Brinks when Sarah and Edward will be out late; Tassie and Mary-Emma have a lovely evening, but Edward is rather forward when he comes home, also commenting on Tassie’s perfume and making her feel uncomfortable.
One day Tassie takes Mary-Emma on an outing, and they are having an enjoyable day until a car full of teenage boys deliberately drives next to them. One of the boys hollers a racial slur at the toddler and the car speeds away, kicking hard pellets of snow onto them. Tassie is dumbfounded, for she would expect such things, perhaps, in Dellacrosse but not in Troy. It is true, some people have given Mary-Emma odd looks at times, but this is an outrage, and Tassie comforts the little girl.
At home, Sarah is distraught, as she thought this was a place which would be accepting of mixed-race families, for she had seen plenty of them at county festivals and parks. Now she realizes the depth of her naiveté. Sarah immediately determines to begin a support group for all “families of color” in Troy. Tassie agrees to watch the children, and so the group begins. Most of the parents are white, but there are many children of diverse coloring who meet for play upstairs as their parents meet for problem-solving downstairs. The adults argue about such things like the causes of, reparations for, and consequences of the rampant racism they all insist exists in Troy. In the meantime, their children play together without arguing or fighting.
While Tassie’s classes are “marching along forgettably,” Edward continues to make her feel uncomfortable with his smiles when she babysits. Meanwhile, she meets Noel, the family’s sixty-year-old gay housekeeper and believes they could be friends. In class, she still makes smalltalk with the Brazilian student who sits next to her, and these conversations grow into a relationship. She asks him to teach her some phrases in Portuguese, which he does. Later, she discovers they were a mix of Spanish and Italian, not Portuguese. Tassie finds herself in the “fused condition of retrospective rue almost always, and from the beginning.” When she tells Reynaldo she loves him, there is a deafening silence in return.
Tassie takes Mary-Emma with her to his apartment, walking through a neighborhood where most people seem to approve of a young white woman with a mixed-race child. She and Reynaldo never kiss or touch in front of Mary-Emma; he takes pictures of them and Mary-Emma is fascinated by the xylophone in his apartment. One day Sarah confronts Tassie about seeing her in a far-away neighborhood but does not pursue the issue.
Spring has arrived, and Tassie buys a scooter with her babysitting money (including a raise from Sarah). She loves showing Mary-Emma the blooming flowers and observing the wonder in the child's eyes. Tassie prints and frames a photo Reynaldo took of Mary-Emma and gets an unexpected response to the gift. Sarah is outraged, not that her daughter is sitting on a prayer blanket but that a perfect stranger took this photo. She makes Tassie promise there will be no more photos by this man. Sarah is also upset because a car blaring rap music keeps driving by the house; Sarah’s fear is that Mary-Emma’s birth father may try to reclaim her, for he has not yet signed away his parental rights. Meanwhile, Tassie is more concerned about several strange phone calls in which no one speaks. Tassie also notices that Sarah is wearing the same perfume as the her and finds it odd. Sarah admits that she did not check any of Tassie’s references and asks her not to take Emmie to that neighborhood again.
Classes continue, Murph is never at the apartment, and Tassie’s brother is now seriously considering enlisting in the military. He has sent her an e-mail but she fails to read it thoroughly. Tassie thinks about Bonnie, Mary-Emma’s birth-mother, often. She eventually does an internet search and discovers Bonnie may actually have been murdered. The hang-up phone calls continue, as do the Wednesday night meetings for families of color. The adults agree that society has not advanced in its acceptance of biracial families as much as people seem to think it has.
Tassie and Reynaldo go to the movies and do typical things that dating couples do; however, Tassie deceives herself into thinking they are a “normal” couple. “Though he continues never to express a single word of love for her, not in any of his several languages, she cannot take a hint.” One Wednesday night after a typical meeting, Tassie gets on her scooter and zips to Reynaldo’s apartment. She senses something is wrong before she even enters the apartment; when she walks through the unlocked door she knows she is right. There is nothing in the dark room except for Reynaldo, sitting on his prayer rug with his laptop, staring at a new poster, a quote from White Fang about desolation in the land.
He tells Tassie he is going to London and that he has sent the xylophone to her apartment. He warns her not to tell anyone of his whereabouts if she is contacted, and that he is not part of a “cell.” Tassie begins to realize things about Reynaldo she never picked up, like his “intermittent accent” and his talking about a country being a “spiritual mistake.” As they talk—argue, really—Reynaldo speaks of jihads and godlessness and Tassie talks of his lies. Finally, she leaves his barren apartment and no one chases after her.
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Tassie is not sleeping; she is depressed and brokenhearted. No one at school asks her about Reynaldo, and no one in his neighborhood questions her. She realizes “just how private and isolated” their affair had been. She misses Murph and wishes she would come back, and she does. Murph arrives on the same day as the xylophone. Her boyfriend broke up with her, too, and they spend their time writing ridiculous songs.
Mary-Emma is learning many songs from Tassie, and Sarah half-heartedly objects to “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad” on the grounds of bad grammar and the use of slave labor. Tassie is incredulous at both ideas, and Sarah relents. She does remind Tassie that they have a high calling, though, because they “are doing something important, unprecedented, and unbearably hard.” Sarah pours them both some wine and says she needs to tell Tassie something and that “things are happening.”
Sarah tells Tassie that she must begin in the past. Edward and Sarah once lived in Massachusetts. Their names there were Susan and John—and they had a son. Tassie thinks to herself no one has ever told her the truth about themselves. Just then Noel comes in to clean, so the rest of the story must wait. Tassie takes Mary-Emma to the park, and Mary-Emma has fun playing with another little girl. As Tassie gets ready to leave, the other little girl’s mother says she thinks it would “be good for” her daughter to have a play date with an African-American child, since she does not have such a friend. Tassie is stunned at the prospect of Mary-Emma being used for such a cause; she tells the woman Mary-Emma already “has a lot of white friends” and walks away.
After they return to the house, Tassie puts Mary-Emma down for a nap and takes the child’s dirty clothes to the downstairs laundry room rather than throwing them down the chute as usual. She is surprised to see a young woman ironing clothes; she is even more surprised to spy a pair of men’s brown shoes and pant cuffs “hiding in the shadows.” Liza is the girl’s name and she is friendly as she takes the clothes to launder. Upstairs, Tassie tells Sarah she has met Liza, and Sarah is pleased that she has now met nearly everyone.
It is several days before Sarah is able to continue telling Tassie her secret. Susan and John were driving with their four-year-old son Gabriel in the back seat. The child had the name of an angel but did not have a temperament to match. He began leaning forward in his car seat and tormenting his father. Gabriel began pulling John’s hair and eventually took off one shoe and began hitting his father in the head. John was having trouble driving and grew irate because neither he nor Susan could stop the boy’s behavior. John finally pulled the car over on the slushy shoulder of the road and demanded that Gabriel get out of the car, which he stubbornly did—before slamming the door closed. He walked, with only one shoe, through the slush and sat on a picnic table near a rest stop. John tried to move forward so he could pull over, but the traffic was too dangerous for him to do so. Susan panicked as they pulled away from Gabriel and threatened to get out of the car. He told her it was kind of like a time-out as he continued to maneuver his way back to the rest area despite all the traffic. Just then Liza comes up the stairs and the story must again be put on hold.
Tessa is not sure she wants to hear the end of a story which caused two people to change their names and move across the country—without a son. Susan was still screaming as John exited the highway so he could return to the spot where he abandoned their son. They finally saw Gabriel, and he was on the side of the road, crying. John’s answer to the problem was more speed as he drove by on the opposite side of the highway, honking at Gabriel to let the boy know they were coming. Susan could see that Gabriel was going to try to cross the busy highway to get to them, and she screamed at John to make a U-turn. When he did not do it, Susan grabbed the wheel and forced the car into a turn.
Behind her she saw that one lane of traffic had slowed to let the boy cross, but the impatient driver in the second lane hit him. Gabriel became the “flying golden angel after which he was named.” John and Susan pleaded guilty to every charge levied against them; they felt like no punishment could be too much. Unfortunately for them, the judge determined their loss was enough of a punishment and suspended their sentences. They drove a thousand miles west, trying to escape their past. Sarah says she is a different woman now, that the woman who let a man make such a mistake died. Their “convicted but legally unpunished condition” has allowed those memories to fade, she says, something Tassie is stunned to hear.
After that, Sarah was too old and could not get pregnant, so they decided to adopt. But the adoption agency discovered the couple’s past and is threatening to take Mary-Emma from them. Sarah thinks perhaps the child would be better off with less disastrous—and not as white—parents. Tassie is outraged at the thought of Sarah giving up her child, the child she has come to love so much. Sarah says Edward is a philanderer and not a good father, and she is too busy to be a good mother; Tassie is offended by the implication that she has not been an adequate substitute parent. Sarah says Emmie will be shamed when this story is told and gossiped about by everyone in town and will eventually hate them.
Tassie feels as if they are all characters in different fairy tales, grotesques who have no idea how to interact with each other. Only Mary-Emma is exempt. Sarah gives Tassie a sealed plastic bowl of a “rooty puree” and asks her to keep it in the back of her refrigerator for her and to be careful not to get it confused with actual food. Sarah tells Tassie she is not comfortable having it here when the children are present for the Wednesday meetings, though it is supposedly only a stain-fighting agent for laundry. Tassie takes the bowl, but as time passes she forgets it is there. Her refrigerator fills with a variety of takeout leftovers as both she and Murph live their frenetic, end-of-the-year schedules. The last thing Tassie is thinking about is the bowl of “pulverized narcissus bulb tapenade.”
One Monday both Sarah and Tassie pick up the phone when it rings. It is the adoption agency, and Tassie quickly hangs up before she can hear more. Tassie begins singing to Mary-Emma upstairs in the child's room. Soon the phone rings again, but Sarah does not answer. Instead, Tassie hears the sounds of deep mourning and begins to sing louder to shelter the child from the sound. During a pause in the music, the doorbell rings and Sarah—again wearing Tassie’s perfume—comes rushing into the room. She grabs her daughter and quietly asks Tassie to answer the door and stall whoever is there.
It is Roberta from the adoption agency, and Tassie enjoys the freedom to be insulting to the woman. Eventually Tassie goes upstairs to tell Sarah who is at the door and finds Sarah standing in the hallway, holding a fully dressed Mary-Emma. Roberta makes it clear that she must take “Mary” because their time as foster parents is up and they are not able to adopt; the child will be taken to another foster home. Sarah is resigned and sends Emmie away with a bag of belongings, a little bigger than the one she arrived with some months ago. After Roberta drives away, Mary-Emma crying in the back seat, Sarah runs into the house and weeps uncontrollably.
Tassie keeps expecting to hear from Sarah but does not, and the semester is nearly completed. One night when Tassie comes home late, she finds Murph lying motionless on the couch. She has eaten some of the poisonous paste with crackers and does not respond when Tassie tries to rouse her. After the ambulance arrives, it becomes clear Murph will live. In her statement to the police, Tassie does not reveal Sarah’s “self-thwarted potential to kill someone.” The semester ends and the roommates part ways, putting their belongings in storage and knowing they will not be roommates again next year.
Tassie’s father calls and asks if she wants to come home for the summer to help him on the farm. She is thankful for the offer and accepts.
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Tassie’s father and brother pick her up at the bus station, and Robert is already wearing his graduation gown. He asks why she never responded to his email; she thought she was supposed to ignore it and did, she tells him. At home, Tassie helps her mother dress for the ceremony. She finds a black hat with a feather in it and asks where her mother plans to wear it. Gail says she does not know yet.
The graduation ceremony was typical for Dellacrosse, and Tassie is reminded that everyone likes Robert as they hoot and holler for him as he crosses the platform. Robert’s family takes him to the bus station the next day where he will leave for, ironically, Fort Bliss. Tassie hands him a flippant reply to his e-mail on a note card (“don’t forget to write”), his father stuffs some money in Robert’s pocket, and his mother begins to cry at his leaving. His face stays pressed against the window as the bus leaves the station.
The summer passes as Tassie works hard in her father’s potato fields. Though she usually keeps to herself, Tassie joins her parents at the town’s Fourth of July ceremonies. Because it is the first such celebration after September 11, everyone has to go through a metal detector. Both Tassie and Gail think it might not have been “so awful to be English.” As the summer wears on, things grow and flourish. Gail has taken “slightly” to her bed, and Tassie spends some time playing her bass guitar. She misses her scooter and returns to Troy to get some of her belongings.
After her bus ride, Tassie feels the need to walk. She finds herself headed downtown and eventually at Sarah’s restaurant, Le Petit Moulin. When she asks for a job application, she is told they will not be hiring, as this is their last night. When Tassie asks for Sarah, she receives a disconcerting look from the young maître d'. Finally, Tassie asks to be seated for dinner. She is the only unpaired diner in the room, but she is amazed at the intricate food she is given—including her father’s potatoes, perfectly cooked. She eats slowly, orders more, and stays late, enjoying everything about this experience.
It is late when she starts the sixty-mile journey home on her scooter. She drives through a fierce rain, making the drive even longer; she arrives home and her father scolds her, forbidding her from driving her scooter at night. Her mother shows her the postcard they received from Robert. He tells them the food is terrible and he is being shipped out tomorrow but nothing more. Tassie shows her father the paper menu from the restaurant, telling him she found his potatoes.
Tassie obeys her father, but she does ride her scooter all over during the day. She spends time reading and, at the end of the day, practices “soaring” and “leaping” on her scooter. And then one evening she sees a vision: Reynaldo and Robert stand at the edge of the field, apparitions which vanish in the dark. They return the next night with a golden-haired child which Tassie recognizes as Gabriel Thornwood Brink. She knows, now, they are all “unfindably dead.”
She is not at home when the two military officers come to give her parents the news of Robert’s death. The explanations as to why and how a young man just eight weeks out of boot camp ended up in Afghanistan and is now dead are unsatisfactory and they change, depending on who is talking to them. A check for twelve thousand dollars arrives via express mail, and Robert’s name is spelled wrong. Both parents mourn in their own ways for their lost son. His body arrives from Chicago and the funeral is held in a church Robert never attended. His friends all speak well of him, laughing at some of their favorite memories with Robert. His mother is wearing the black hat with the feather, and his father tells one short story before breaking down and sobbing.
After everyone is gone, Tassie opens the lid of the casket to say good-bye to her brother. She climbs into the casket and lies next to him. He is missing legs and both hands and the bottom half of his face is missing, though someone had tried to make him appear as normal as possible, even for a closed casket ceremony. Tassie pulls the lid over them both and decides she will “lie there with her brother forever.” She does finally reveal herself when the pallbearers arrive to move the casket. Tassie goes home and closes herself in her room for the next month.
Her father gets Tassie a medical leave from college, and she is told to rest and get better. But for her, “the fulfillingness of her life’s every day had not just faltered but had stopped.” Life for her does improve, becomes “endurable” as autumn wears on and she makes deliveries with her father. They all three watch the news regularly and see all the others who have lost their lives in the Middle East. When Robert’s picture is shown, “the face of a baby with a hat jammed on,” they are all silent until Gail says Robert “looks tired.”
Fall progresses and Tassie stumbles across the e-mail from Robert that she should have read so long ago—long enough ago that she might have made a difference. In it, Robert tells her he has always admired her, watched her ahead of him as the one who had everything figured out; then he asked for her advice about joining the service. No one else’s advice mattered to him; her word, “do or don’t,” would help him decide. Tassie would like to go back in time, but to say what?
Robert appears to her several more times, until she finally tells him to quit feeling sorry for himself. She never sees him again. After Thanksgiving, Tassie returns to Troy and moves in with a girl who says she is one quarter African-America, one quarter Oneida, one quarter, Czech, and one quarter Irish. Tassie does not move many of her things into the apartment; perhaps later she will get her bass guitar and xylophone out of storage. One day she may even feel serene enough to ride her scooter again. She has trouble finding a job, and she notices that Le Petit Moulin is not only closed but suffering from neglect.
By mid-December Tassie has registered for classes and found a job as a barista at Starbucks, probably because so many reservists have been called up for deployment. She sees an advertisement for a bass player in a band and takes down the number. She is riveted by every little girl she sees, particularly those with Mary-Emma’s coloring. One evening Tassie receives a phone call from Ed Thornwood. He tells her Sarah has moved back east, to New York this time. Edward got her number from the Starbucks people who called him for a reference before hiring her. After trying to flatter her and make flirty small talk, he asks Tassie if she would like to go out to dinner with him. She is struck dumb by the request and can only repeat the word “dinner” several times. He finally realizes Tassie is not interested and there is a strained silence at both ends of the phone line. She does not even have coffee with him; that much she has learned.
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