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Secrets of the City

gotta go now.” Ina heard something in her mother’s voice, a catch, a rasp, a whisper of a plea, an unsaid word that left an echo in the phone line. “Mother,” Ina asked, “ do you remember how we used to play gin rummy when we rented that beach house the summer I was 8 and how you always let me win?” “I do,” said Ruth, thinking of the rain on the roof and the wet towels growing mildew on the porch. “Well, thanks,” said Ina. “See you soon.” “Sure,” said Ruth. If she had been a cat, she would have purred, so content was she.

* * *|

“Yeew,” said the Imp of Misfortune, “how sentimental, how icky, these mortals be.”

“Yeah,” said the Imp of Itches in Hard to Reach Places, “they’ll get what’s coming to them.” The imps laughed their smart-aleck laughs, which sound to human ears like the dentist’s drill.

Kim and Kelly sat on their bedroom floor surrounded by their favorite stuffed animals. Brooke stopped on her way down the hall, standing in the doorway and watching her daughters. The children lowered their voices so she could not hear them.

There was a terrible lump in her throat as she considered all the disasters that might happen to hurt her children. Her love for them grew sharp like a needle and pierced her to the bone.

How could she save her children? Was there a God who could help her? She was not a believer. She had never been one to pray. There was something wooden in the God she had been given as a child, something distant and unreal. She had never felt she had His ear.

* * *|

Ruth was having lunch with Augusta at the Civics Club, a women-only club where the walls were pink and the staircase railing was white and the ladies’ room had fresh roses in Ming vases and the luncheon buffet table held six kinds of salad and a great silver samovar with hot chocolate. A small dish of miniature marshmallows sat on each table, and the room was surrounded by portraits of the women who had served as the club’s past presidents. They all had posed for their portraits in pearls and low-cut ball gowns.

“A drink?” asked Augusta. Ruth shook her head no. “I’m going to have a whiskey sour,” said Augusta. “I need it today.”

When Ruth asked what was wrong, Augusta said that everything was fine. “You’re lucky,” Ruth said, “everything is never fine in my house.” Augusta looked at her friend, a new friend to be sure, a strange friend who seemed to see through her, right into her heart the way none of her friends, not even her old roommate from Vassar, could. Augusta’s eyes filled with tears, tears she tried to hide behind a napkin.

“Augusta,” Ruth said in a no-nonsense voice, “tell me the truth.” The word “truth” made Augusta weep some more. “It’s my daughter,” said Augusta. “She says I was never there for her. I hired too many nannies. Everyone did in those days. It was expected.” Ruth nodded. “She says,” Augusta continued, “that I failed her, that I never let her experience her anger. Her therapist says I was controlling and repressive and would not allow her to express her genuine feelings. My daughter says I don’t know how to love.” Augusta whispered these terrible accusations even though the women at the next table were deeply engrossed in their own conversation.

Augusta was pale as a ghost. She looked old, older than usual. Her skin seemed to sag around her mouth. She was the portrait of defeat itself, female-style defeat. Ruth wanted to eat the chicken salad that sat on the table before her, decorated with tempting greens and cucumber, but she felt it rude to chew during this particular conversation.

“Did you expect to be given a medal for good parenting?” Ruth asked. “But,” said Augusta, “I tried. I really tried so hard.” “We all did,” said Ruth, “Why do you think that they declared a Mother’s Day?” Augusta looked startled. “For commercial reasons?” she guessed. “No,” said Ruth. “It’s so children would remember for one day of the year that they were not raised by crocodiles.”

“Shouldn’t we tell young women this, before they begin their families? We could start an organization to reveal the truth about the ingratitude of children.” Augusta had regained her normal color, thinking of a way to serve the society. “I’m sure we could have the Civics Club for a benefit dinner. I know a lot of women who would like to be on our board,” she added.

“No,” said Ruth, “if our offspring knew what we know, they might not bear children, and think what that might do to the Social Security system, to the economy. Besides, I like having grandchildren.” “What can we do?” Augusta asked, noticing her salad and picking up her fork. “Nothing,” said Ruth. “Of course,” she added, “you could cut down on the whiskey sours.”

Ruth called Mel on her cell phone from the cab on her way back to her office. “Any news?” she asked. “No,” said Mel. “What if they never solve this? What if we have imitation massacres, an epidemic of tribal warfare? What if the African-Americans decide to off a group of Koreans, and the Chinese decide to get the Irish, and the Protestants get the Catholics and we have to take over a Wal-Mart to accommodate all the corpses?” “Get a grip,” said Ruth.

She called her daughter in her lab. “I’m very busy, mother,” Ina said. “I know,” said Ruth. “I just had to ask you something.” “What?” Ina said, trying but not succeeding in keeping the irritation out of her voice. “I just was thinking,” Ruth said, “we haven’t had much time to talk recently. I miss you.” Ina sighed audibly. “It’s all right,” said Ruth. “I

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