The Catalyst

Steve Mahlum

I didn’t want to go home, but the nagging beeps sounding from my wristwatch reminded me I could delay it no longer. Flicking the switch on the terminal I had stared at all afternoon, I reluctantly broke away from my research. A part of my mind seemed connected to the computer, for when I turned it off, the stacks of equations broke apart and drifted away into some dark corner of my memory. I dropped a few papers into the briefcase on the floor, then, donning my coat, headed for the door beneath the green glow of the exit sign. The clank of the crash bar brought a gush of warm air that pushed me from the building onto the sidewalk, abandoning me there. I exhaled the last of the inside warmth, forming a momentary cloud in the cold February air. As the cracks in the sidewalk steadily appeared and disappeared beneath my feet, my thoughts rambled home. 

The chill in my ears seemed to seep into my mind as I thought of home. Three months from today would be our fifth wedding anniversary. Five years. My wedding day seemed further back than graduation, though I had my Ph.D. more than a year before I met Kara. For a moment I thought back to that first year we were married—to those nights when our every touch and kiss had been fresh and exciting. It seemed like a memory of something that had happened to someone else. October eleventh of that first year, the day of Kara’s first miscarriage, had changed us. The phone call, Dr. Fielding’s office, the blank face of his receptionist as she spoke, “Room four down the hall to the left,” and Kara as she lay on the padded table with a wrinkled, white sheet draped over her chest and abdomen and her mother there beside her, soothing her daughter—everything connected with all three of Kara’s miscarriages stays with me. The babies were gone, that’s all, just gone. 

A strong beat of music snapped my mind back to an approaching curb. I watched a car speed past me with its occupant and stereo. I pushed my toes out over the curb and teetered there until the light changed. 

I thought it only natural that Kara turned to her mother for understanding. Mrs. Little took some pleasure in knowing she was the one who could meet her daughter’s needs. “You know,” she had said one evening, “you’ll never be able to replace me as Kara’s best friend.” I pretended otherwise, determined never to concede that to her; I wanted to prove to Kara that her mother was butting in where she didn’t belong—where I belonged. 

It was worse when they got together. Kara and her mother chattered for hours about things and people I never knew or really cared to know. They had always been close, Kara being her mother’s only blood child. Kara’s half-brothers and sisters were all more than thirteen years older than she. And for twenty-one years Kara had been her mother’s “Baby Princess.”

 I turned the corner onto Thistle Avenue, careful to avoid the puddle of ice that always formed on the sidewalk there. Widow Beckert owned the corner property and tonight her house was dark. Her flower garden that looked so cheerful in the summertime was now black, matted stubble. Her fruitful herb patch from which she created all sons of remedies displayed a variety of spiny stems that stubbornly defied the winter rot. It was from those same stems that Widow Beckert had gathered the raspberry leaves she had given to Kara. “Nature’s own remedy for the cramps and the womanly discomforts of pregnancy,” Widow Beckert had told Kara. And since her first miscarriage, Kara had never stopped sipping it. 

Every night Kara sipped her raspberry tea, as if refusing to let go of her hope, every cup reminding her that she didn’t have what she wanted most. Then after the tea, her mindless crocheting kept her rapt in her longing for babies. I lost count of the baby clothes she made and gave away; every occasion whether wedding, birth, shower, or birthday was an excuse to make more baby clothes. Every friend and relative must have at least one of her outfits for their own children. Seeing her there at home sipping tea and crocheting reminded me constantly that things were no better than the day before. 

It always came back to the miscarriages. They affected every part of my marriage—like a bad batch of chemicals affects a project. But a project is different; the chemicals are constant and predictable, and to a point controllable. My latest project, though, was not going well. Theoretically the coal liquefaction ought to work, but we were hitting nothing but dead ends. I shouldn’t have left so early tonight; Brad had stayed on, checking my work.

Yet here I was, making my way up the walk to our home. My eyes watered in the cold, and I brushed the drops aside with the back of my hand. My whole face felt tight and fixed. Avoiding the glistening puddles of ice, I made my way up the steps, stopping in front of the mailbox on the red brick wall at the top of the stairs. “136—Mark B. and Kara Giles” was yet visible through the yellowed tape. The metal flap clanked against the brick as I flipped it. Empty. Stepping to the door, I fumbled for the key. I keyed the lock, nudged the black knob, and stepped into the living room. Raspberry tea. I smelled a fresh batch. 

My eyes met Kara’s as she glanced up from the kitchen table. “Hi, Hon,” I said. 

“Hi,” came her reply, “how’s your project coming?”

I turned and closed the door. “It’s cold out there, and the sidewalks are a little slick.” I put the briefcase down between the end table and the worn sofa and tossed my coat across the back of the rocking chair. 

“Was there any mail?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Kara replied, “right here, on the table.”

Her hand left her cup for an instant as she pushed the electric bill and insurance flier across the table top. “We won’t be needing that, anyway,” I said as I stepped to the refrigerator.

 She glanced at the bright red flier and read the bold print—GREAT MATERNITY BENEFITS, Reasonable Monthly Rates

“That’s not very funny.” 

“Sorry,” I said. “No offense. You know we have all the insurance we need through the university.” 

I looked over at her. She was staring into her raspberry tea. She always stared into her raspberry tea, and I knew that in a few minutes she would sit down on the couch and crochet more baby clothes. It started the same way every night. She would crush the raspberry leaves in a small wooden bowl, carefully press them into the sieve in the teakettle, and simmer the leaves for 20 minutes. She always had two cups. I knew tonight she was already on her second cup—her fingers were fidgeting around the handle, turning it back and forth. They always fidgeted while she drank her second cup, as if anticipating the crocheting. “You never cared that I lost my babies.” 

My neck swelled tight against my shirt collar. She was wrong. I did care. I cared a lot, and I wanted to make her understand that. But not now, not while she sipped her tea. It was better just to let it be. 

I leaned against the stove, drinking my milk until the heat from the oven began to warm the seat of my pants. Pulling away from the oven, I smelled the baking tuna. I opened the door to have a look. 

“Mmmm, tuna and rice or tuna with noodles?” I asked, looking at the bubbling casserole.

 The heat from the oven made goosebumps rise on my arm. “Neither,” came her reply, “it’s tuna with potatoes.” 

“Tuna with potatoes?”

 “Yeah,” she replied, “tuna with potatoes. Is something wrong with that?” 

“Is it ready?” I asked. 

“It’s probably nearly burned. You’re a little late.” 

I shut the oven and glanced at the clock. It showed twenty after eight. It had taken me thirty minutes to get home. It usually took twenty. “Sorry,” I mumbled, then gulped down the rest of the milk. 

“You haven’t eaten yet?” I asked. 

“No, why don’t you set the table.”

 I took down two plates and bowls, grabbed two forks and two knives, and waited until Kara finished cutting the carrots and celery into the salad before I set them on the table. Why hadn’t she eaten? She usually ate before I came home. 

As she pulled the steaming casserole from the oven, I buttered a couple of pieces of bread.

 We sat down and automatically bowed our heads. 

“Bless this mess. Amen,” I said. It had been a while since I had said that. Kara didn’t even look up. I said grace and we both dished up the casserole.

 “How’s the project going?” she asked.

 “Still more problems,” I said with a mouth full of hot potatoes and tuna. “This is different, but it’s not bad.” I took another mouthful.

 “I thought you said that Brad just had to verify something in the lab.” 

“It didn’t verify. Do we have any dressing for the salad?” She got up and pulled a bottle from the fridge that held what was left of the dressing. I poured some on my salad and stabbed my fork into the middle.

 “Did you finish correcting all those papers you started last night?”

 “Finish what?” 

“The papers. Did you get them done?”

 “Oh…no. How was your day?” I asked.

 “Fine. I finally got a chance to defrost the fridge; we really need one of those frost-free ones.”

 I didn’t say anything.

“While it was thawing, I went shopping with Liz. We spent a couple of hours just window shopping, looking at all the spring fashions in the shops at the mall.”

 “Did you buy anything?”

 “I got a couple of yards of material for the new pattern Mom bought me last month. Otherwise, we just looked enviously at all the outfits. You should see all the bright stripes that are coming back in.” 

“I’ve seen some already at school,” I said around a mouthful of lettuce and carrots. “Have Liz and…her husband, what’s his name…?” 

“Ron.” 

“Mmmm,” I swallowed. “Have they finished moving in next door?” 

“Yeah, their apartment looks nice.” 

“We’ll have to invite them over for dinner and an evening together sometime so I can meet Ron. What’s he do anyway?” 

“I think Liz said he’s an accountant for a firm in town.” 

“Have you met him?”

 “No, he’s always been at work whenever I’ve seen Liz. Do you want any more casserole?” 

“No, not right now. Tuna and potatoes aren’t all that bad, though.” 

We cleared off the table and Kara rinsed the plates while I opened my briefcase and spread chemistry assignments out over the table. I began marking a stack of papers. A few minutes later, Kara appeared from the bedroom wearing her coat, carrying her crocheting bag. 

“Where are you going?” I asked without looking up. 

“Over to Mom’s.”

 “Again?” That’s why she had eaten late, why she had waited to begin her crocheting.

 “Just because I’m tied up here for a few hours correcting these assignments doesn’t mean you can just run off to your mother’s,” I said. 

“Oh?”

 “I just thought maybe you could do your work here tonight. I don’t understand why you have to go running off to your mother.” 

Kara stood in silence but she appeared a little stiff. Her eyes met mine and she shook her head.

 “Can’t you stay? We’ll talk. Can’t you stay and talk things over with me just once? I’d like to know how you feel.” I got up, walked over, and stood by her. She turned and walked over to the sofa and sat down with a sigh. I went and sat in the rocker. 

“I care about how you feel. If you need to talk, talk to me. I’ll listen.” 

She sat silently, looking at the carpet, just thinking. 

“It’s those miscarriages, still, isn’t it?” I said. “You don’t think I feel anything. You don’t think I care that we can’t have kids. You’re wrong. Those babies were mine as well as yours, and every time you lost one, I hurt inside. But I pity the fetuses too. They weren’t normal and it’s better they—” 

“Oh, don’t. Don’t start into that again.” 

“Can’t I explain how I feel?” 

“You don’t know how it feels. Where’s my purse? I don’t know if any man knows how to feel.” 

“Please don’t go over to your mother’s. I want you to stay. I want to talk this out.”

Kara sat and fumbled in her purse for the keys. 

“Why is it that anytime I say anything or try to have an intelligent conversation, you always get angry? If you think I can’t understand just because I’m a man, I think you’ re wrong. I can understand, if you’d just explain.”

She had found the keys and held them in her hand. 

“Don’t go. For heaven’s sake, just give me a chance. A mis carriage isn’t the end. It is for the baby, but that’s because of nature’s defense. A miscarriage is an act of mercy. It doesn’t seem like it to us, but if I were the baby, I’d be glad I didn ‘t make it—to be born a freak.” 

She glared at me. “It means nothing to you. It’s like just another botched experiment.”

“It isn’t. That’s not true. I want you to understand how I feel about it. But you don’t really want to understand, do you?” 

She sat silently. 

“And that’s another thing,” I broke in, “I want you to explain—to tell me what it is you think is so wrong with how I feel.” 

“You can’t understand. You talk like…like…a computer.”

 She put her purse and her bag down beside her. “The first night I came home from the hospital, you sat there at the table and talked about deformed chromosomes and malformed genes. About NDA or DNR or whatever it is, and how it had flubbed up its copy of the human body; how the fetus would have been born crippled, or worse, and how it was so much better to have nature slough it off. It was a freak. You called it a freak! You even took out your old biology book and showed me.” 

“I didn’t—”

 “How could you sit there and talk of your own child, the life you started, as a freak? You couldn’t feel it then, and you can’t feel it now. You called them freaks.” Tears came to her eyes, but she took a deep breath and held them back.

 I sat silently for a moment.” Well, don ‘t you feel better for talking?”

 “Is that all it means to you—a bunch of cells and science? I’m going. I can’t stand it here. Go back to your papers—to your project.” 

I sat and watched her open the door. I was sweaty and hot. Why? Why couldn’t she stay? She’s the one who couldn’t understand. I wanted to make her understand. I listened to her feet on the steps. 

“Go to your mother, then!” I shouted. “She can’t give you what I can. Maybe they died because they looked so much like her!”

The sound rebounded off the closed door, and when I heard it, it stung. I was sorry I had said it. I didn’t mean it. I dropped down on the sofa and stared at the picture in the frame on the wall. I looked at the white of Kara’s wedding dress as she stood next to me in my blue tux. I had loved her. Things were so comfortable then, so good. Except for the face and the name, the woman who just left was a different woman. 

I looked around. I was disgusted with the room, with the old sofa, with the table in the kitchen, with the china cup that sat on the counter and the teakettle sitting on the stove. I had to get out and get some air that wasn’t so dry and hot. I grabbed my coat off the rocker and walked out into the night. 

The porch light stared blankly down on the dull, wet concrete. In its light, I saw a brown leaf clinging to the side of the drain pipe. The last dirty mounds of the once beautiful, white winter shroud trickled down the gutter to the storm drains. The ground was naked and bare. The silhouettes of the leafless trees and the smell of cold, damp grass and dead leaves filled the air with a stale freshness. Everything stood—open, exposed, bare, and vulnerable—silently aching for something to hide its barren ugliness. A couple, hand in hand, came around the street corner headed toward me. They seemed to intrude in this barren place; they didn’t belong. They passed by, oblivious to all I saw, disappearing into the house next door. 

I thought of Kara, of the pictures of us as they hung on the living room wall. I tried to imagine her again as we were when we were first married. Had I loved her? Did I love her? Kara was becoming an extension of her mother: more and more it seemed that she was speaking to me the way her mother did—the tone was the same, their words were the same, even their ideas were becoming the same. The thought of Mrs. Little made my face flush. My eyes swelled tight and burned a little in the cold; I rubbed them and took a deep breath. 

Blinking, I exhaled and looked around. I had stopped. I was on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. I puzzled a moment as to why I had stopped. No one was around. Only the soft, yellow glow drifting through the curtains in the windows of the houses seemed to notice. Putting my hands in my pockets, I headed toward the brightness of the streetlamp on the corner.

If only I could get Kara away from her mother. She wouldn’t have anyone to turn to but me. Without her mother there, I knew she’d try to work things out, try to understand. Her mother affected her…like the narcotics affect lab mice. I smiled at the analogy. 

We’d move. That would get her away from her mother. There were other schools with good programs, another opening somewhere. It seemed so easy. As soon as I had an offer, I’d tell her we were moving. 

As I thought, I pictured Mrs. Little’s face when Kara would have to tell her we were moving. Her Little Baby Princess leaving her presence. Her whole soul would be bent on keeping her daughter here. She’d never be able to change my mind though, I was sure of that. 

But Kara—what if she were to convince Kara to stay? 

Would she go? 

She’d have to, she’s my wife. 

What if she refused to go? There would be no way I could stay after proposing the move. I’d have to leave. 

Maybe she wouldn’t go. Probably she wouldn’t go. Her mother would see to that. She’d convince Kara that I’d come crawling back to her—or convince her I wasn’t worth having at all. 

And I’d have to give up my position in the department, along with the research grant I’d worked so hard to get. And she probably wouldn’t go anyway. She’d stay and move right back in with her mother. Her damn mother. Always her mother! I walked stiffly, kicking a small stone out ahead of me along the sidewalk, while my thoughts raced through what had happened tonight. 

If we only had children. I just knew that if Kara and I had a whole family, complete with kids, she’d quit being her mother’s daughter and be more of a wife. But even after all the tests, the doctor wasn’t sure Kara would ever be able to carry a baby full term. I was convinced it was only a kind way of saying we’d never have children. 

The only other way to get a child in our home was adoption. We occasionally brought it up, but anything concerning children always ended in anger. Kara wanted children, though. I’d have to find out if she wanted them enough to adopt. It was the only hope of ever pulling her away from her mother. 

The cold had crept deep into my toes and hands and face, finally overpowering the conscious mind with a slight shiver. Even if I walked fast, it would be a cold half-hour to home. 

Dutifully the next morning I went to work in the lab on my project. Brad was there already, writing up the results of yet another experiment that hadn’t gone well. 

“You know, Brad,” I said, “I’ve been thinking. What if we add an iron or cobalt catalyst to this reaction?” I handed him the paper that had the beginnings of a tentative experiment. 

He studied it a moment.” It should lower the activation energy required and get things moving a lot faster.” 

“You think it will work, then? ” I asked.

 “Well, we’d have to verify it from every angle before we start, but I don’t see why not. It could be the break we’ve been looking for.” 

“It’ll be like starting over on this thing.”

 “We’re not getting anywhere going this route,” Brad said pointing to his report. “We might as well start researching the catalyst angle.” 

I picked up my paper and headed for my office. I began looking through everything I could find on iron and cobalt catalysts. I seldom got through a paragraph before thoughts of Kara would slip in and scramble everything I’d read. Fighting half the afternoon for concentration, I felt too tired to continue. I started home to rest. 

I hadn’t bothered with lunch at school, and the leftover casserole would be nice. As I came down the walk toward the house, my stomach tightened. There in the driveway was the car. My heart pounded as I climbed the stairs. I was careful not to make much noise. The door was unlocked. I opened it and stepped in. 

Kara was standing in the kitchen. Her mother was sitting on the sofa in the living room. Both their heads jerked up when they heard the door. I stood rigidly in the doorway and stared at Kara.

 “What are you doing home so early?” she asked. “I…ah…thought I’d come home.”

 Kara’s mother was still staring at me, but she abruptly composed herself. 

“Hello, Mark,” she said.

 I turned to Kara, “Been home long?” I asked.

 “No,” she replied, “we just stopped by to get a few things.” 

“Oh,” I grunted as I set down the briefcase and folded my coat over it. Kara walked out into the living room and sat on the sofa with her mother. I went and stood in the kitchen. “I thought I’d come home early today,” I said, making my way to the cupboard for a glass.

 Mrs. Little’s voice broke through the silence, “We need to have a talk.”

 “We? Need to have a talk?” I turned around and glared at her. My face felt hot. How dare she come in here! Glass in hand, I headed for the rocker. 

“I don’t remember…” I wanted to say that I didn’t remember inviting her over here, that it was no business of hers to come over here and talk to me about anything, but I caught myself. I knew where that would lead, and I had no intention of giving her the satisfaction. 

“Don’t remember what?” Kara asked.

 “I don’t remember our ever having talked seriously about adopting a baby. I think it’s time we considered that idea seriously. I think it’s a viable alternative to the problems we face as a childless couple.” 

Their faces went blank. They stared at me. Kara looked at her mother, who said nothing. 

“What?” Kara blurted out. 

“An adoption,” I repeated. “We could adopt a baby. I see it as a viable—”

“I heard that,” she said curtly. “How can you think of adopting a child in this home? We can hardly stand it here with each other, and you want to adopt a baby.” 

“Yes, I do.”

 “What a fine home to bring a baby to. What fine parents. We could tell them that Mommy couldn’t have anything but little freaks, so to solve the problem, Daddy wanted to go out and buy one ready-made. We could tell them they are just viable solutions to our problems. And we sure wouldn’t want to get one that looked like grandma, would we?”

 I felt hot and embarrassed. “I was a little angry last night—the way you went running back to your mother. I didn’t mean what I said.” 

“Where else could she go?” her mother broke in. “You sure showed what kind of man you are.”

 “Better than some parents I know,” I said, peering at her. “Maybe I wouldn’t be the greatest father, but I sure wouldn’t butt into my children’s lives or chain them to my apron strings. Maybe Kara’s right. Maybe we wouldn’t make very good parents. But she hasn’t had much to look to, to learn how to be one.” 

“Young man, I won’t sit here and be insulted. I knew what you were the day I laid eyes on you.” 

“Oh, you did? And just what was that?” I queried. 

“An insolent—” 

“Mark, Mother,” Kara broke in, “that’s quite enough.” 

“You’re absolutely right,” said Mrs. Little. “I’m leaving. Kara, are you coming?” 

Kara watched her mother stand, put on her coat, and head toward the door. 

“No. Later, Mother,” Kara finally replied. 

Mrs. Little stood upright and looked back. ” Maybe it’s just as well. You married him. Heaven knows you knew how I felt about him.” She paused by the door and turned around a little sheepishly. I expected to hear something more until I figured out why she had turned. She had driven over with Kara. I reached in my pocket and threw her the car keys. There was not another word until the car had pulled out of the driveway. 

“Look what you’ve done,” Kara said. 

“What I’ve done? I don’t suppose you think your mother—”

 “Oh, just forget it,” she interrupted. 

“How can I just forget it? Any time any little problem comes up or you want to do anything, you go to your mother. You never sit down with me to work things out.” 

“That’s just it, Mark; how can you even think of an adoption? Do you really think a child is going to change the way we are?” 

“It might if you’d quit running off to your mother.” 

“Just leave her out of this.”

 “You don’t know how much I’d like to.”

 “You can’t blame my mother for every problem you have. I suppose you think our marriage has collapsed through no fault of your own, that my mother has ruined it. Well think again—” 

“It would sure be easier without her around.” 

Kara didn’t say anything. 

“All right,” I said, “enough about your mother.” 

“What a home!” Kara began. “When was the last time we were really together—alone—for a whole evening? You’re always off in your little laboratory, always making sure you have something to do with your project. It makes a woman feel good to know her husband would rather stir chemicals than be with her. And did you ever call from your office just to find out how I was doing? You must think that marriage is just a grand equation. And now, somehow, you think that an adoption will change everything.”

“I think that just maybe we could make this work if a child were brought into our home.”

 “I think we need to feel a lot more sure about it than ‘just maybe,’” Kara said softly.

 I couldn’t think of anything else to say. We just sat there staring at the rug. 

“I’ll go get something on for lunch,” Kara said, and made her way to the kitchen, where she busied herself with the routine that soon had tomato soup and cheese sandwiches sitting on the table. We sat up, and except for grace, nothing was said until the soup began disappearing from our bowls.

 “This isn’t much of a marriage, Mark,” Kara said abruptly. 

“Is that what your mother decided?” I asked, quickly staring down at the cheese on my sandwich.

 “My mother didn’t decide anything, and even if she had, it’s true and you know it.”

 “I do know she can ‘t keep her nose out of other people’s business—out of things that don’t concern her at all.” 

“I’m her daughter. I suppose you think that I’m none of her business.”

“No,” I broke in, “you’re wrong. This marriage is none of her business. This marriage is mine, and it’s yours. It has nothing to do with her-nothing. But she sure makes it her business. She thinks it’s more hers than it is mine. I didn’t marry your mother, Kara. If I had known she would be an automatic threesome in this family, maybe I wouldn’t…”

“You wouldn’t what?” Kara broke in.

 “Maybe we’d never have married.” 

“And thirty minutes ago you wanted to adopt a baby.” 

“Yes,” I said loudly,” and I still do. Do you think that we can just continue like this? What did you have in mind to do for the next twenty years? To stay here and live like two, or should I say three, roommates?”

 I paused, but Kara said nothing. 

“I suppose you’re thinking we could get a divorce. Fine, you could go back and finish raising your mother. Maybe she could find you someone who would be content to let her run his life. What are you going to do when she’s gone?”

 “My mother is a good parent and a good friend, which is more than you can say for yourself.”

 Kara began to cry. She left the table, went back to the bedroom and shut the door. I went and sat on the sofa and wondered where this was all going to end. I slept on the sofa; Kara probably didn’t sleep at all. She didn’t even come out for raspberry tea. 

For the next couple of days neither of us said much. But Kara didn’t go over to her mother’s, and her mother didn’t come to our apartment. They probably had some long talks on the phone, but Kara was careful to keep her mother from becoming a topic for any reason. Yet we both knew that we couldn’t just drift along much longer. Kara surprised me one night after her second cup of tea. 

“What made you bring up adoption? Especially when mother was here?” she began. 

“She shouldn’t have been here,” I said.

 “Do you want to talk about this or not?”

 “Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

 “We’re both going to have to change quite a bit if we’re going to bring a baby into this home,” Kara continued. ‘Tm not going to raise a child or even bring one in if we can’t change. We owe that to the baby. I wouldn’t want anyone to have to live in a home like ours has been. And babies aren’t always so easy to be around; there’ll be nights we won’t get much sleep, days when we’ll all be so crabby we won’t be able to stand it. I just don’t know if we’re up to that, Mark. I just don’t know. I know we aren’t if we don ‘t change a few things.”

 “I think we can make the adjustment,” I said confidently. 

“It would be refreshing to have a different threesome to worry about. The child will be our responsibility, and we’ll have to work things out together as parents. Of course, not everything’s going to be easy, but I think we can do it.” 

“I want you to apologize to my mother,” Kara said evenly when I had finished.

 “It goes two ways,” I added.

 “I suppose,” she replied.

 The next Sunday found us over at the Little’s, where the apologies took place. There wasn’t anything sincere or triumphant about them. They were just necessary if the adoption were to be considered seriously. Everyone had to be reassured that all would be done under the cover of harmony. 

I never knew how Kara reconciled her mother to the idea of the adoption, except that Mrs. Little wanted Kara to be a mother in the worst way. Grandchildren had much to do with it, too. Anyway, I never did ask, and neither Kara nor her mother offered to explain. 

The adoption eclipsed every other part of our lives. Children became the topic of every occasion. Our friends smiled, congratulated us, and filled our evenings with stories of their own children. They made sure we knew how the babies cried and fussed, and that’s what made them adorable. They let us know at what age we could expect a child to cut teeth, to turn over, to crawl, to sleep through the night, to stand up, to walk. We heard how each of theirs had done all these things early, but each child was different, they would tell us, and we really shouldn’t expect ours to be like theirs. We had not heard such an outpouring since before Kara’s first miscarriage, when our friends dared openly to discuss children. 

Kara’s crocheting seemed finally to have a purpose. For me, the months of wait ing were like an extended pregnancy—a guaranteed pregnancy—the anxiety of a pending miscarriage was reassuringly absent. 

For Kara, the waiting was something unsettling. It reminded her that she was not pregnant, that she was not the real mother. Having grown up in a home with half-brothers and half-sisters, she knew about nonblood relations, and she had her own mother’s insights about just how it is to be a parent to another’s child. I think she felt as if she was going to be a half-mother. Yet the desire to become a mother seemed always to outweigh any alternative.

 Then on May 2, after so much anticipation, disappointment, and hope, she arrived, just ten days old. We named her Helen. 

She was beautiful. She had dark brown hair a half inch long. Her eyes were still that color that only babies have when no one can tell what color they’ll be. Her ears were still pressed close to her head. Her little mouth sucked anything that came close enough to enter, including her lower lip. Her hands and feet displayed delicate miniatures of fingers and toes that she would push gently out for a moment then swing wildly about as she lost control of her arm or leg. She reminded me of a baby bird—always fussing, eating, burping, messing, and fussing again. 

Kara was obsessed with her. At times Helen seemed smothered with pink, including little pink bows stuck to her head with Karo syrup. Her every cry was cause for more cuddling, and Kara was delighted to give it. Some call the process bonding, I call it pampering, but Kara concluded it was all quite necessary. The baby had affected Mrs. Little’s motherly instincts as well. Many times I’d come home and she would be there. Kara seemed to enjoy their time together, and Mrs. Little was, in a sense, the grandparent. And since Helen’s arrival, she had found it in herself to speak to me again. After all, she was the grandparent. 

Things were going well. Kara finally seemed able to accept her miscarriages; Mrs. Little was so busy being a grandparent she didn’t have time to be her obnoxious self. The last few days I had spent immersed in lab work, going over every detail of the project, making sure we had missed nothing, checking every equation. The new equipment had arrived and was ready. Brad and I were both convinced we had only to verify our work in the lab. We had decided to stay until it was done. While Brad monitored the equipment I went into the lounge and fell asleep on the couch. 

A few hours later Brad awakened me, handing me a sheet of paper. He had scribbled down the preliminary test results. My eyes glanced over the page as he spoke: “Every test confirms that after four or five hours at the reaction temperature, both the iron and the cobalt catalysts become contaminated with sulphur and carbide.” 

“And become totally ineffective.”

 “Yeah,” he replied,” in fact, the hydrogen and carbon monoxide almost cease reacting. ” 

I sat staring at the paper thinking maybe there was some error, something we had missed, knowing there was not. In theory it had seemed to work out so well. It should work. It had to work. But it didn’t. So much time and money…” There may be something else,” Brad said before slipping out to go home. I sat thinking about where the project could go from here; faint, high beeps began sounding from my wristwatch.