Although relatives were in short supply, friends and neighbors aplenty stopped by to help Agnes, and some offered to stay with her at night. She gratefully accepted assistance with the housecleaning, laundry, and shopping, but she declined the all-night company because of her dreams.


Routinely she dreamed of Joey. Not nightmares. No blood, no reliving of the horror. In her dreams, she was on a picnic with Joey or at a carnival with him. Walking a beach. Watching a movie. A warmth pervaded these scenes, an aura of companionship, love. Except eventually she always glanced away from Joey, and when she looked again, he was gone, and she knew that he was gone forever.


She woke weeping from the dreams, and she wanted no witnesses. She wasn't embarrassed by her tears. She just didn't want to share them with anyone but Barty.


In a rocking chair, holding her tiny son in her arms, Agnes cried quietly. Often, Barty slept through her weeping. Awakened, he smiled or squinched his face into a puzzled frown.


The infant's smile was so captivating and his puzzlement so comically earnest that both expressions worked on Agnes's misery as surely as yeast leavens dough. Her bitter tears turned sweet.


Barty never cried. In the hospital neonatal unit, he'd been a marvel to the nurses, because when the other newborns were squalling in chorus, Barty had been unfailingly serene.


Friday, January 14, eight days after Joey's death, Agnes closed the sofa bed, intending to sleep upstairs from now on. And for the first time, since coming home, she cooked dinner without resort to friends'


casseroles or to the treasures in her freezer.


Maria's mother, visiting from Mexico, was babysitting, so Maria came without her children, as a guest, joining Agnes and the laugh-a-minute Isaacson twins, chroniclers of destruction. They ate in the dining room, rather than at the kitchen dinette, with a lace-trimmed tablecloth, the good china, crystal wineglasses, and fresh flowers.


Serving a formal dinner was Agnes's way of declaring-to herself more than to anyone else in attendance-that the time had come for her to get on with life for Bartholomew's sake, but also for her own.


Maria arrived early, expecting to assist with final details in the kitchen. Though honored to be a guest, she wasn't able to stand by with a glass of wine while preparations remained to be made.


Agnes at last relented. “Someday, you're going to have to learn to relax, Maria."


“I am always enjoy to being useful like a hammer."


“Hammer?"


“Hammer, saw, screwdriver. I am always to be happy when useful in such way like tool is useful."


“Well, please don't use a hammer to finish setting the table."


“Is joke.” Maria was proud of correctly interpreting Agnes.


“No, I'm serious. No hammer."


“Is good you are joke."


“It's good I can joke,” Agnes corrected.


“Is what I say."


The dining table could accommodate six, and Agnes instructed Maria to set two places on each of the long sides, leaving the ends unused. “It'll be cozier if we all sit across from one another."


Maria arranged five place settings instead of four. The fifth—complete with silverware, waterglass, and wineglass-was at the head of the table, in memoriam of Joey.


As she struggled to cope with her loss, the last thing Agnes needed was the reminder posed by that empty chair. Maria's intentions were good, however, and Agnes didn't want to hurt her feelings.


Over potato soup and an asparagus salad, the dinner conversation got off to a promising start: a discussion of favorite potato dishes, observations on the weather, talk of Mexico at Christmas.


Eventually, of course, dear Edom held forth about tornadoes—in particular the infamous Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which ravaged portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.


“Most tornadoes stay on the ground twenty miles or less,” Edom explained, “but this one kept its funnel to the earth for two hundred nineteen miles! And it was one mile wide. Everything in its path—torn, smashed to bits. Houses, factories, churches, schools-all pulverized. Murphysboro, Illinois, was wiped off the map, erased, hundreds killed in that one town."


Maria, wide-eyed, put down her silverware and crossed herself.


“it totally destroyed four towns, as if they were hit by atom bombs, tore up parts of six more towns, destroyed fifteen thousand homes. That's just the homes. This thing was black, huge and black and hideous, with continuous lightning snapping through it, and a roar, they said, like a hundred thunderstorms booming all at once."


Again, Maria crossed herself “Six hundred ninety-five people were killed in three states. Winds so powerful that some of the bodies were thrown a mile and a half from where they were snatched off the ground."


Apparently Maria wished that she'd brought a rosary to dinner. With the fingers of her right hand, she pinched the knuckles of her left, one after the other, as if they were beads.


“Well,” Agnes said, “thank the Lord, we don't have tornadoes here in California."


“We have dams, though,” said Jacob, gesturing with his fork. “The Johnstown Flood, 1889. Pennsylvania, sure, but it could happen here. And that was a one, let me tell you. The South Fork Dam broke. Wall of water seventy feet high totally destroyed the city. Your tornado killed almost seven hundred, but my dam killed two thousand two hundred and nine. Ninety-nine entire families were swept from the earth. Ninety-eight children lost both parents."


Maria stopped praying with her knuckle rosary and resorted to a long swallow of wine.


“Three hundred and ninety-six of the dead were children under the age of ten,” Jacob continued. “A passenger train was tumbled off the tracks, killing twenty. Another train with tank cars got smashed around, and oil spilled across the flood waters, ignited, and all these people clinging to floating debris were surrounded by flames, no way to escape. Their choice was being burned alive or drowning."


“Dessert?” Agnes asked.


Over generous slices of Black Forest cake and coffee, Jacob at first held forth on the explosion of a French freighter, carrying a cargo of ammonium nitrate, at a pier in Texas City, Texas, back in 1947. Five hundred and seventy-six had perished.


Mustering all her hostess skills, Agnes gradually turned the conversation from disastrous explosions to Fourth of July fireworks, and then to reminiscences of summer evenings when she, Joey, Edom, and Jacob had played cards-pinochle, canasta, bridge-at a table in the backyard.


Jacob and Edom, paired, were formidable competitors in any card game, because their memory for numbers had been sharpened by years of data gathering as the statisticians of catastrophe.


When the subject shifted to card tricks and fortune-telling, Maria admitted to practicing divination with standard playing cards.


Edom, eager to learn precisely when a tidal wave or falling asteroid would bring his doom, fetched a pack of cards from a cabinet in the parlor. When Maria explained that only every third card was read and that a full look at the future required four decks, Edom returned to the parlor to scare up three more.


“Bring four,” Jacob called after him, “all new decks!"


They wore out a lot of cards and kept a generous supply of all types of decks on hand.


To Agnes, Jacob said, “Likely to be a sunnier fortune if the cards are bright and fresh, don't you think?"


Perhaps hoping to discover which runaway freight train or exploding factory would smear him across the landscape, Jacob pushed aside his dessert plate and shuffled each deck separately, then shuffled them together until they were well mixed. He stacked them in front of Maria.


No one seemed to realize that predicting the future might not be a suitable entertainment in this house, at this time, considering that Agnes had so recently and horribly been blindsided by fate.


Hope was the handmaid to Agnes's faith. She always held fast to the belief that the future would be bright, but right now she was hesitant to test that optimism even with a harmless card reading. Yet, as with the fifth place setting, she was reluctant to object.


While Jacob had shuffled, Agnes had taken little Barty from his bassinet into her arms. She was surprised and discomfited to discover that the baby was to have his fortune told first.


Maria turned sideways in her chair and dealt from the top of the four-deck stack, onto the table in front of Barty.


The first was an ace of hearts. This, Maria said, was a very good card, indeed. It meant that Barty would be lucky in love.


Maria set aside two cards before turning another faceup. This was also an ace of hearts.


“Hey, he's going to be a regular Romeo,” said Edom.


Barty cooed and blew a spit bubble.


“This card to mean also is family love, and is love from many friends, not just to be kissy-kissy love,” Maria elucidated.


The third card that she placed in front of Barty was also an ace of hearts.


“What are the odds of that?” Jacob wondered.


Although the ace of hearts had only positive meanings, and although, according to Maria, multiple appearances, especially in sequence, meant increasingly positive things, a series of chills nevertheless riffled through Agnes's spine, as if her vertebrae were fingers shuffling.


The next draw produced four of a kind.


Whereas the lone heart at the center of the rectangular white field inspired amazement and delight in her brothers and in Maria, Agnes reacted to it with dread. She strove to mask her true feelings with a smile as thin as the edge of a playing card.


In her fractured English, Maria explained that this miraculous fourth ace of hearts meant that Barty would not only meet the right woman and have a lifelong romance worthy of epic poetry, would not only be showered all his life by the love of family, would not only be cherished by a large number of friends, but would also be loved by un countable people who would never meet him.


“How could he be loved by people who never meet him?” asked Jacob, scowling.


Beaming, Maria said, “This is to mean Barty will to be some day muy famous."


Agnes wanted her boy to be happy. She didn't care about fame.


Instinct told her the two, fame and happiness, seldom coexisted.


She had been gently dandling Barty. Now she held him still and kept him close to her breast.


The fifth card was another ace, and Agnes gasped, because for an instant she thought it was also another heart, an impossible fifth in a stack of four decks. Instead: an ace of diamonds.


Maria explained that this, too, was a most desirable card, that it meant Barty would never be poor. To have it follow four aces of hearts was especially significant.


The sixth card was another ace of diamonds.


They all stared at it in silence.


Six aces in a row, thus far consecutive as to suit. Agnes had no way of calculating the odds against this draw, but she knew that they were spectacularly high.


“Is to mean he is to be better than not poor, but even rich."


The seventh card was a third ace of diamonds.


Without comment, Maria set aside two cards and dealt the eighth.


This, too, was an ace of diamonds.


Maria crossed herself again, but in a different spirit from when she'd crossed herself during Edom's rant about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Then, she'd been warding off bad fortune; now, with a smile and a look of wonder, she was acknowledging the grace of God, which, according to the cards, had been settled generously on Bartholomew.


Barty, she explained, would be rich in many ways. Financially rich, but also rich in talent, in spirit, intellect. Rich in courage, honor. With a wealth of common sense, good judgment, and luck.


Any mother ought to have been pleased to hear such a glowing future foretold for her child. Yet each glorious prediction dropped the temperature in Agnes's heart by another few degrees.


The ninth card was a jack of spades. Maria called it a knave of and at the sight of it, her bright smile dimmed.


Knaves symbolized enemies, she explained, both those who were merely duplicitous and those who were downright evil. The knave of hearts represented either a rival in love or a lover who would betray an enemy who would deeply wound the heart. The knave of diamonds was someone who would cause financial grief. The knave of clubs was someone who would wound with words: one who libeled or slandered, or who assaulted you with mean-spirited and unjust criticism.


The knave of spades, now revealed, was the most sinister jack in the deck. This was an enemy who would resort to violence.


With his ringleted yellow hair, coiled mustache, and haughty right file, this was a jack that looked as if he might be a knave in the worst sense of the word.


And now to the tenth card, already in Maria's small brown hand.


Never had the familiar red Bicycle design of the U.S. Playing Card Company looked ominous before, but it was fearsome now, as strange voodoo veve or satanic conjuration pattern.


Maria's hand tamed, the card turned, and another knave of spades revoIved into view, snapped against the table.


Drawn one after the other, two knaves of spades didn't signify two deadly enemies, but meant that the enemy already predicted by the first would be unusually powerful, exceptionally dangerous.


Agnes knew now why this prognostication had dismayed rather charmed her: If you dared to believe in the good fortune predicted he cards, then you were obliged to believe in the bad, as well.


In her arms, little Barty burbled contentedly, unaware that his destiny supposedly included epic love, fabulous riches, and violence.


He was so innocent. This sweet boy, this pure and stainless infant, couldn't possibly have an enemy in the world, and she could not imagine any son of hers earning enemies, not if she raised him well. This was just a silly card reading.


Agnes meant to stop Maria from turning the eleventh card, but her curiosity was equal to her apprehension.


When the third knave of spades appeared, Edom said to Maria, “What kind of enemy does three in a row describe?"


She remained fixated on the card that she had just dealt, and for a while she didn't speak, as though the eyes of the paper knave held her in thrall. Finally she said, “Monster. Human monster."


Jacob nervously cleared his throat. “And what if it's four jacks in a row?"


Her brothers' solemnity irritated Agnes. They appeared to be taking this reading seriously, as though it were far more than just a little after-dinner entertainment.


Admittedly, she had allowed herself to be disturbed by the fall of the cards, too. According them any credibility at all opened the door to full belief.


The odds against this phenomenal eleven-card draw must be millions to one, which seemed to give the predictions validity.


Not every coincidence, however, has meaning. Toss a quarter one million times, roughly half a million heads will turn up, roughly the same number of tails. In the process, there will be instances when heads turn up thirty, forty, a hundred times in a row. This does not mean that destiny is at work or that God-choosing to be not merely his usual mysterious self but utterly inscrutable-is warning of Armageddon through the medium of the quarter; it means the laws of probability hold true only in the long run, and that short-run anomalies are meaningful solely to the gullible.

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