Not easy on his mother, that boy. A boy had been Hazel’s second choice, but when Tommy phones to tell her he’s here, tells her his name, and says he’s almost ten pounds, he has dark hair and a set of lungs like Pavarotti’s, and he wants to meet his Aunt Hazel, she says she’ll be there as soon as she can. In this most villainous winter since Ethan Allen nearly froze to death on his horse-drawn sled crossing Lake Champlain, Ms. Hicks drives through a blizzard across the state to get to Dartmouth-Hitchcock to see John Robert on his first day of breathing oxygen. The hour-and-a-half drive takes her four hours.
About this boy she’d expected to be of two minds—in fact that’s how she’d have preferred it because of course she has no children of her own; she’s just turned forty-one, and she has little to no interest in babies in general. Also the baby’s father, her brother Tommy, though she supposes she’s obligated to love him, has inflicted little-sister teasing and torture on her for so many years and at such a high level she thinks she can have him put behind bars if she ever wants to press charges. But when Tommy says the child’s name, the sound of it pleases her ear, and she thinks maybe finally there’s somebody in the world she can adore without complication.
On the newborn nursery floor, Hazel heads straight to the viewing window to look at the babies. She’s hoped John Robert will be easy to identify—she thinks it important to establish rapport between a boy and his aunt without the interference of parental spin and static—but there are seven or eight little human units in there all in a row, swaddled up and capped so that they look like recruits in a baby army. A couple of them are squalling, four have their eyes closed, but one of them is open-eyed and calm, so that’s the one Hazel studies. When a nurse comes out, Hazel asks her which one is the Hicks baby, and the young lady points to little Mr. Open Eyes. Hazel stands there shivering with the pleasure of having correctly identified her new nephew.
When she walks down the hall to the Hicks room, Hazel finds Tommy looking like Jesus has just tapped him on the shoulder. Yesterday describing the face of her brother would have probably been an easy assignment—hard-core Republican set of the jaw, pirate blue eyes, hair trimmed so close it’s almost a shaved head, and a mouth that’s designed for bad-mouthing welfare cheaters and talking trash in sports conversations. Hazel’s brothers have always been considered hard to take by relatives, parents, teachers, coaches, human resources officers giving presentations on diversity and sexual harassment, even by each other. Whenever she’s around her brothers for any length of time, Hazel wishes she was anybody but a Hicks.
This afternoon, however, Tommy has a sweet docility about him that bemuses Hazel. “Hey, brother, you look like a human being today. What’s wrong?” Tommy just smiles, wraps her in a big hug, and pats her on the back, which he has never done before in their whole lives up until now. Tommy’s wife, Teresa, the mother of John Robert the Open-Eyed, who is ordinarily extremely put-together and by-the-numbers cordial to Hazel, sits up in bed with storm-tossed hair and none of her usual make-up, looking like she’s ready to declare war on anybody who even says hello to her. Hazel stays an arm’s length away from that bed and avoids eye contact with its occupant.
Hazel gets the picture. Her brother has wanted this baby probably since not long after the wedding, and Teresa has been ambivalent for almost as long. She has a fast-track job at People’s United Bank and knows that birthing this kid is going to set her career back at least a couple of years, if not permanently. Plus there is the matter of the ten pounds of John Robert that has resided in her belly for nine months and a week and that must have been no fun at all when it made its exit around three a.m. As someone who recognizes a negative family dynamic when she sees one, Hazel thinks she, too, ought to be making an exit pretty darn soon.
The problem is that she wants to hold that boy in her arms, wants it really bad. This particularly stupid yearning is not familiar to her—she thinks it’s utterly at odds with her character, and yet here it is, refusing to let her start moving toward the door, making her excuses, acting like she can hardly wait to get back out there on the interstate so she can drive the four hours through the blizzard back to Burlington. When she notices a chair over in the far corner by the window, Hazel makes for it, thinking that if she just keeps quiet (which is a skill she has) and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, she can stay there incognito until the nurse brings in John Robert, and then maybe she can think of some way to ask if they’ll let her hold him. Or maybe Tommy, in his new saintly self, will ask her if she wants to.
The boy’s mother looks like she may refuse the baby when they bring him to her. Not mine, she’ll say, that thing doesn’t belong to me, and she’ll raise her hands, palms out to fend off the bundled-up lump of newborn creature they’re trying to shove into her arms, and that’s when Hazel will stand up and say ever so calmly, Here, Teresa, I’ll take the boy and just sit over here and hold him awhile until you get used to him. Ah, Hazel she’s still got her wishful kid fantasy powers fully intact—she sometimes thinks she could have had a very rewarding career as comic book heroine, Hazel in the Wings it would be called, about a woman whose life kept taking detours without ever reaching any destination whatsoever but who steadfastly continued to believe that there was something mysterious and fantastic waiting just for her out in the future. When the smiling nurse does bring John Robert Hicks into the room, Teresa raises her arms toward him and instantly transforms herself into a woman whose only desire from birth to this moment has been to nurse this baby.
Still Hazel keeps sitting quietly in her corner thinking maybe it can happen; as long as she’s here in the room there’s a chance that boy will find his way into her arms. It’s a grand form of misery that, in a general way, feels utterly familiar to her—she has this overwhelming desire for something that’s so close she can see it in detail but that’s out of her reach unless somebody (over whom she has little influence and no power) decides to be generous and give her a little taste of it. A tiny spoonful of righteous pleasure, she thinks, that’s all she wants, and she can’t just ask for it because she knows the answer will be No, not now, and no forever more, you want it too much; therefore, the answer must be, so sorry but not in your lifetime. “Hazel, do you mind holding this baby a minute while Tommy helps me to the bathroom?” Teresa asks, and suddenly she’s smiling like they’ve been best friends ever since high school.
So, the instant before the baby’s body moves through space into contact with her body, Hazel’s brain undergoes a whirligig spasm of pleasure. As her transmogrified brother carefully deposits the startling weight of the boy into her hands and then steps back to steady his wife on her three-step journey to the bathroom, Hazel’s concentration shuts out everything in creation except the tidy, blanket-wrapped package of this most extraordinary nephew of herself. She can feel the heat of him in her palms. Probably it’s against the rules, but Hazel nudges the cap off his head—“The better to see the tippy-top of your noggin, dear boy,” she chortles softly, meanwhile marveling at how sappy she’s gone under the influence of human replication as it manifests itself here before her eyes in the form of blood kin—Lord God! she thinks, he smells like he just came out of a cave. She smoothes her palm over his warm scalp and whispers, “Welcome to the most impossible family on the planet, kiddo.”
A random kindness bestowed by the universe folds time around Hazel and her nephew. In real time, Hazel probably has no more than eight minutes of holding John Robert, gazing at him as if she can read his future in the puckery smacking of his lips and his dark eyes that appear to be studying her face and blink only occasionally. She makes a little chant out of his name and sings it to him, she loosens his swaddling enough to gain access to his hand, she opens his fingers and gently places her fingertip in his palm, she puts her nose right up to his forehead and inhales deeply, and when the child yawns, she holds him up to her face so she can peer over his tongue and down into the red tunnel of his goozle. Tommy’s hands appear before her—he’s there to transport John Robert back into Teresa’s arms—so Hazel lifts the boy up and over to Tommy with little reluctance, because it feels as if she’s spent a year with that baby. “I think he’s hungry,” she murmurs.
Then she sits in her corner, happily ignored by everyone else in the room and softly resonating as if she’s just splashed down at the end of a long journey from outer space. A little lightheaded, she tries to grasp the muted drama playing itself out in front of her, though it’s hard for her to follow what Tommy and Teresa and the lactation specialist are talking about—they seem so far away, and for that moment it’s as if she’s a ghost among living people. Hazel understands that she’s just experienced an ecstatic encounter that she must have yearned for all her life, something that evidently has disassembled her interior life sufficiently that, although she feels at peace with everything around her, she also has no sense of connection to anybody in the room except John Robert. Like deepening twilight, a gradual sense of not existing at all descends upon her.
Whatever this is that’s come over her is not unpleasant. She considers standing up and stretching, shaking it off like sleepiness or a bad mood, but she isn’t ready to give up the pure freedom she feels—these lovely, competent adults in the room are absorbed in the project of John Robert’s having his first meal this side of the womb, and they’ve so completely forgotten she’s here that she might as well not be. The words not be suddenly and lightly touch some previously untouched circuit of her brain, so that she witnesses a rapid sequence of images, a little video her mind plays for her: Tommy turning toward her chair, not seeing her and asking where Hazel went; Teresa not taking her eyes off her nursing son and saying, “Oh maybe she went to the bathroom, or maybe she was tired and just decided to drive back to Burlington,”; the lactation specialist glancing from Teresa to Tommy and wondering who they’re talking about, never having noticed her in the first place; and most peculiar of all, the empty chair, this chair warmly occupied by her body this very moment, suddenly empty of her. Hazel knows she’s in an exotic state of mind, one that makes it clear to her that now that she’s had her time with John Robert, her presence in this room is necessary to no one—it’s a presence that might as well be an absence. So she stands, quietly gathers up her coat and bag, moves to the door, and opens it. “Goodbye, everyone,” she says softly, blowing a kiss (something she’s never done before) to her nephew. As she eases the door closed behind her, she hears Tommy and Teresa calling, “Goodbye, Hazel.”
She wonders how long this state of mind or spirit intends to have its way with her. Down the elevator and through the labyrinth of fluorescent-lit hallways and down into the gloomy dungeon of the hospital garage, she somehow remembers her way back to her car, all the while enjoying her contemplation of that baby boy in her hands, warming and brightening her thoughts. Ordinarily, the prospect of driving at night through bad weather would have her in a chokehold of despair, but paying her parking fee, finding her way out of Hanover, making her way to Interstate 89, she’s as cheerful as a bank robber who knows he’s never going to be caught for the heist he’s just pulled off. Because her nephew is so tangibly present in her thoughts, her eyes, her hands, and even her lap, she’s kidnapped him. In her mind, Hazel has John Robert Hicks right here with her in the car, resting on her lap with the crown of his head against her belly and his legs extending under the steering wheel as she drives.
The interstate still has long patches of ice on it, but at least the snow has stopped falling, the stars have appeared in the sky, and there’s very little traffic. Around Woodstock, her treasuring of John Robert gradually transports her into remembering her Aunt Wilma Ransom, the old maid who came to live with Hazel’s family the last weeks of her life. Hazel knows it’s a mental association that could occur naturally only during a late-night drive on an icy interstate after many hours without rest and an intense first encounter with a newborn nephew to whom she has responded with her whole heart. And it must be the physical intimacy that is the connection—Hazel bonded with her Aunt Wilma so deeply that, at the very end, she climbed into bed with her and held her bony body through the last breaths she took. If she could have, Hazel would have accompanied her Aunt Wilma right on into death.
Hazel knows she’s damned peculiar for the way she thinks and feels. Right now she thinks that evolution must have placed her on the planet as an alt version of human, that she’s lucky the authentic humans haven’t locked her up somewhere, and that she still has her freedom, probably because most of the time she’s been sly enough to keep her thoughts to herself. Okay, so however irrational and odd she is, she’s not going to resist whatever revelation it is that’s gradually moving into her consciousness as she drives this solitary highway toward her house in Burlington. Yes, now she’s beginning to see how she’s had only a very few physical connections with other human beings—this one with her nephew who’s not yet a day old, the one she had with her lover, Forrest Garrison, which lasted about seven months, and the one she had for a few weeks when she was thirteen and held her Aunt Wilma in the last hours of her life. “Just these three,” she murmurs softly.
Three’s enough is the thought that comes to her, and the one that follows is, I wouldn’t have wanted more than three. She’s wide awake, she’s had the car on cruise control for long enough that the machine feels like it almost doesn’t need her, she just has to move the steering wheel every now and then. Something about her headlights tunneling through the darkness pleases her mightily. She suspects she’s still so high from her encounter with John Robert that everything is feeding into her serenity, her sense that all will be well, and that during this long day and night the universe must have decided to set her free of obligation and the special variety of suffering that has been her lot as an alt human. Now that her magical nephew has arrived, her life will be a continuation of this skimming smoothly through the night, following the lighted path always before her, moving on and on toward no destination whatsoever. Then she sees that this must have been how it was for Aunt Wilma in her last days—the old lady understood that the destination didn’t matter and nothing was required of her. The path of light was taking her where she needed to go.
Hazel knows her brain to be both foolish and relentless in its workings. Ordinarily, she would berate herself for submitting to such wispy musings, and what she thinks of as her iron will would step into the discussion and insist that the hard facts be taken into account: Hazel has no real friends; Tommy and Teresa don’t enjoy her company, and so there is no reason why they would wish her to have any influence on their son; Hazel treated Forrest Garrison so brutally in breaking up with him that, even if he didn’t hate her then, he most likely despises her now; and the reason Aunt Wilma Ransom asked Hazel’s family to take her in was that she, like Hazel, had no friends, and now that she’s dead, Hazel is probably the only person on the planet who remembers her even slightly. Hazel carries out this review of the hard facts while her car glides past the Richmond exit; in another fifteen minutes she’ll be home, and she’s astonished that her state of mind has not been shaken by all the bad news she’s dredged up. Even the obvious conclusion—that there is no path of light—doesn’t strike her as anything she has to take seriously.
There’s no baby on my lap either, she murmurs, but as long as I feel him here, here is where he is. She smacks her right thigh three times with her non-steering right hand as she takes Exit 14W and steers the car around the circle and up onto Williston Road toward the university. My mind may be as peculiar and flawed as a failed invention, but it doesn’t depend on being right about anything and it is strong like you wouldn’t believe. She’s passing the Sheraton on her right and the Staples Mall on her left, and still her car feels airborne as a spacecraft to her—it just goes where it’s supposed to, with her mind and body tending it only slightly. No path of light necessary, she murmurs, as she crests the hill and coasts down past the university buildings. She turns right on Prospect Street, and she’s pulling into her driveway and switching off her headlights when she’s blinded by a vision of such power and vividness she has to blink and squint and feel for her keys with her hands in order to shut off the car.
Hazel’s body has landed pushed forward on her side so that her head, arms, and torso lie on her wooden kitchen floor while her derrière, legs, and feet lie on the slate tiles of her foyer. She looks like a fallen runner. It’s shadowy in here, the foyer light’s on, but the kitchen is lit only by the light over the stove that she always leaves on. Her gloves are off but she still has on her coat. One of her boots lies on its side near the door, the other’s still on her foot, so she was probably stricken just as she was struggling to get her blizzard boots off. From her seat in the dark in the car, Hazel can feel the blow of the thing hitting her like a kick to her solar plexus, can feel herself toppling over. She moves in close to get a look at her face. The one eye she can see is mostly closed, but her mouth’s open as if she’s saying something, or maybe it’s just a grunt or an “Oh!” Hazel can’t imagine what she might have said as she fell, though she knows it must have been a shock to realize that she was taking a tumble. In spite of Vermont’s icy winters, she hasn’t fallen since she was kid. So this is how it is, she thinks, viewing it from the car—and maybe that was the dead woman’s last thought. So this is how it is. The car’s getting cold, the engine’s not even ticking any more, and still Hazel can’t free herself from what she’s seeing. She can’t, in fact, get loose from her state of being both dead in her house and ridiculously alive here in the front seat of her car. It’s not so much a thought as it is a whole-body realization that comes to her here in the dark. I feel so sorry, are the words that follow the emotion.
I feel so sorry for anyone who has to find this body here in my house. She considers who the finder might be, fireman, policeman, or rescue squad EMT—in any case a stranger. She bows her head. It’s a gentle sorrow that pushes her to cry a little, but Hazel’s not about to allow herself any sobbing or tears. Though she’s in no hurry to let it go, the vision’s gradually loosening its hold on her. Something good here, she thinks, and she strains to grasp what it might be. She’s aware that this entire journey across Vermont has been so surreal she might as well have been on drugs. “I’ve been on ecstasy!” she snorts to the car that’s now so cold she’s starting to shiver. She opens the door, stiffly climbs out, stands in her driveway stretching, bending backward with her hands on hips, gazing up at the starry sky. “Do you remember me? Look at me down here! Hazel Hicks! Am I not healthy as a horse?” she demands. She strides to the side door of her house, unlocks it, latches it behind her, switches on lights, removes her coat and boots, shakes the building with her deliberately heavy steps in a circle around her kitchen table. She taps two fingers on it, and whispers, “See? I told you I wasn’t dead.” And when she finally goes upstairs and puts on her nightgown and slips under the covers of her bed, Hazel whispers, “Night, night, John Robert. Sleep tight.”