Greed. So easy, taking money from the rubes. Soon, instead of peeling off a little from each game, he sought bigger kills.

“So I drew attention to myself. Raised suspicions. One night, in St. Louis, this rube recognized me from my performing days, even though I'd changed my looks. It was a high-stakes game, but the players weren't high-class. They ganged up on me, beat me, and then smashed my hands, one finger at a time, with a tire iron."

Edom shivered. “At least the tidal wave at Sanriku was quick."

“That was five years ago. After more surgeries than I care to remember, I was left with these.” He raised his goblin hands again. “There's pain in humid weather, less when it's dry. I can take care of myself, but I'll never be a card mechanic again ... or a magician."

For a moment, none of them spoke. The silence was as flawless as the preternatural hush reputed to precede the biggest quakes.

Even Barty appeared to be transfixed.

Then Agnes said, “Well, it's clear to me that you won't be able to talk out your life in just one year. Should be a two-year grant."

Obadiah frowned. “I'm a thief “

“You were a thief and you've suffered terribly."

“It wasn't my choice to suffer, believe me."

“You feel remorse, though,” said Agnes. “I can see you do. And not just because of what happened to your hands."

“More than remorse,” the magician said. “Shame. I come from good people. I wasn't raised to be a cheat. Sometimes, trying to figure how I went wrong, I think it wasn't the need for money that ruined me. At least not that alone, not even that primarily. It was pride in my skill with the cards, frustrated pride because I wasn't getting enough nightclub work to show off as much as I wanted to."

“There's a valuable lesson in that,” Agnes said. “Others can learn from it if you care to share. But if you want to record your life only up to the card cheating, that's okay, too. Even that far, it's a fascinating journey, a story that shouldn't be lost with you when you pass on. Libraries are packed with biographies of movie stars and politicians' most of them not capable of as much meaningful self-analysis as you'd get from a toad. We don't need to know more about celebrities' lives, Obadiah. What might help us, what might even save us, is knowing more about the lives of real people who've never made it even medium but who know where they came from and why."

Edom, who had never made it big, medium, or little, watched his sister blur before him. He strove to contain the shimmering hotness in his eyes. His love was not for magic, and his pride was not in any skill he possessed, for he possessed none worth noting. His love was for his good sister; she was his pride, too, and he felt that his small life had precious meaning as long as he was able to drive her on days like this, carry her pies, and occasionally make her smile.

“Agnes,” said the magician, “you better start meeting with that librarian now to record your own life. If you don't get started for another forty years, by then you'll need a whole decade of talking to get it all down."

More often than not, in a social situation, regardless of its nature, there came a time when Edom had to bolt, and here now was the time, not because he floundered at a loss for words, not because he became panicked that he would say the wrong thing or would knock over his coffee cup, or would in some way prove himself foolish or as clumsy as a clown in full pratfall, but in this instance because he didn't want to bring his tears into Agnes's day. Recently she'd had too many tears in her life, and though these were not tears of anguish, though they were tears of love, he didn't want to burden her with them.

He bolted up from the sofa, saying too loudly, “Canned hams,” but at once he realized this made no sense, none, zip, so he searched desperately for something coherent to say—“Potatoes, corn chips”—which was equally ridiculous. Now Obadiah was staring at him with that concerned alarm you saw on the faces of people watching an epileptic in an uncontrolled fit, so Edom plunged across the living room as though he were falling off a ladder, toward the front door, struggling to explain himself as he went: “We've brought some, there are some, I'll get some, Chapter 46

NED—“CALL ME NEDDY'—Gnathic was as slim as a flute, with a flute-quantity of holes in his head from which thought could escape before the pressure of it built into an unpleasant music within I his skull. His voice was always soft and harmonious, but frequently he spoke allegro, sometimes even prestissimo, and in spite of his mellow tone, Neddy at maximum tempo was as irritating to the ear as bagpipes bleating out Bolero, if such a thing were possible.

His profession was cocktail piano, though he didn't have to earn a living at it. He had inherited a fine four-story house in a good neighborhood of San Francisco and also a sufficient income from a trust fund to meet his needs if he avoided extravagance. Nevertheless, he worked five evenings a week in an elegant lounge in one of the grand old hotels on Nob Hill, playing highly refined drinking songs for tourists, businessmen from out of town, affluent g*y men who stubbornly continued to believe in romance in an age that valued flash over substance, and unmarried heterosexual couples who were working up a buzz to ensure that their rigorously planned adulteries would seem glamorous.

Neddy occupied the entire spacious fourth floor of the house. The third and second floors were each divided into two apartments, the ground floor into four studio units, all of which he rented out.

Shortly after four o'clock, here was Neddy, already spiffed for work in black tuxedo, pleated white shirt, and black bow tie, with a red bud rose as a boutonniere, standing just inside the open door to Celestina White's studio apartment, holding forth in tedious detail as to the reasons why she was in flagrant breach of her lease and obligated to move by the end of the month. The issue was Angel, lone baby in an otherwise childless building: her crying (though she rarely cried), her noisy play (though Angel wasn't yet strong enough to shake a rattle), and the potential she represented for damage to the premises (though she was not yet able to get out of a bassinet on her own, let alone go at the plaster with a ball-peen hammer).

Celestina was unable to talk reason to him, and even her mother, Grace, who was living here for the interim and who was always oil on the stormiest of waters, couldn't bring a moment's calm to the velvet squall that was Neddy Gnathic in full blow. He had learned about the baby five days ago, and he had been building force ever since, like a tropical depression aspiring to hurricane status.

The current San Francisco rental market was tight, with far more renters than properties for lease. Now, as for five days, Celestina tried to explain that she needed at least thirty days, and preferably until the end of February, to find suitable and affordable quarters. She had her classes at the Academy of Art College during the day, her waitressing job six evenings a week, and she couldn't leave the care of little Angel entirely to Grace, not even temporarily.

Neddy talked when Celestina paused for breath, talked over her when she didn't pause, heard only his own mellifluous voice and was pleased to conduct both sides of the conversation, wearing her down as surely as-though far more rapidly than-the sand-filled winds of Egypt diminished the pharaohs' pyramids. He talked through the first polite “Excuse me” of the tall man who stepped into the open doorway behind him, through the second and third, and then with an abruptness that was as miraculous as any cure at the shrine of Lourdes, he fell silent when the visitor put a hand on his shoulder, eased him gently aside, and entered the apartment.

Dr. Walter Lipscomb's fingers were longer and more supple than the pianist's, and he had the presence of a great symphony conductor for whom a raised baton was superfluous, who commanded attention by the mere fact of his entry. A tower of authority and self-possession, he said to the becalmed Neddy, “I am this child's physician. She was born underweight and held in hospital to cure an ear infection. You sound as if you have an incipient case of bronchitis that will manifest in twenty-four hours, and I'm sure you wouldn't want to be responsible for this baby being endangered by viral disease."

Blinking as if slapped, Neddy said, “I have a valid lease-"

Dr. Lipscomb inclined his head slightly toward the pianist, in the manner of a stem headmaster about to emphasize a lesson with a sharp twist of the offending boy's ear. “Miss White and the baby will have vacated these premises by the end of the week-unless you insist on bothering them with your chatter. For every minute you harass them, their departure will be extended one day."

Although Dr. Lipscomb spoke almost as softly as the long-winded pianist, and though the physician's narrow face was homely and devoid of any trace of violent temperament, Neddy Gnathic flinched from him and retreated across the threshold, into the hallway.

“Good day, sir,” Lipscomb said, closing the door in Neddy's face, possibly compressing his nose and bruising his boutonniere.

Angel was lying on a towel on the convertible sofa, where Grace had just changed her diaper.

As Lipscomb picked up the freshened baby, Grace said, “That was as effective as any minister's wife could've been with an impossible parishioner-and, oh, do I wish we could sometimes be that pointed."

“Yours is a harder job than mine,” Lipscomb told Grace, dandling Angel as he spoke. “I have no doubt of that."

Celestina, surprised by Lipscomb's arrival, was still mentally numb from Neddy's harangue. “Doctor, I didn't know you were coming."

“I didn't know it myself till I realized I was right in your neighborhood. I assumed your mother and Angel would be here, and I hoped you might be. If I'm intruding-"

“No, no. I just didn't-"

“I wanted you to know I'm leaving medicine."

“For the baby?” asked Grace, her face knitting a worried frown.

Cupping Angel entirely in his big hands, smiling at her, he said, “Oh, no, Mrs. White, this looks like a healthy young lady to me. No medicine required."

Angel, as if in God's own hands, stared with round-eyed wonder at the physician.

“I mean,” said Dr. Lipscomb, “that I'm selling my practice and putting an end to my medical career. I wanted you to know."

“Quitting?” Celestina said. “But you're still young."

“Would you like a little tea and a piece of crumb cake?” Grace asked as smoothly as if, in The Big Book of Etiquette for Ministers' Wives, this were the preferred response to the announcement of a startling career change.

“Actually, Mrs. White, it's an occasion for champagne, if you have nothing against spirits."

“Some Baptists are opposed to drink, Doctor, but we're the wicked variety. Though all we have is a warm bottle of Chardonnay."

Lipscomb said, “We're only two and a half blocks from the best Armenian restaurant in the city. I'll dash over there, bring back some chilled bubbly and an early dinner, if you'll allow me."

“Without you, we were doomed to leftover meat loaf."

To Celestina, Lipscomb said, “If you're not busy, of course."

“This is her night off,” said Grace.

“Quitting medicine?” Celestina asked, baffled by his announcement and his upbeat attitude.

“So we must celebrate-the end of my career and your move."

Suddenly remembering the doctor's assurance to Neddy that they would be out of this building by week's end, Celestina said, “But we've nowhere to go."

Handing Angel to Grace, Lipscomb said, “I own some investment properties. There's a two-bedroom unit available in one of them."

Shaking her head, Celestina said, “I can only pay for a studio apartment, something small."

“Whatever you're paying here, that's what you'll pay for the new place,” Lipscomb said.

Celestina and her mother exchanged a meaningful glance.

The physician saw the look and understood it. A blush pinked his long, pale face. “Celestina, you're quite beautiful, and I'm sure you've learned to be wary of men, but I swear that my intentions are entirely honorable."

“Oh, I didn't think-"

“Yes, you did, and it's exactly what experience has no doubt taught you to think. But I'm forty-seven and you're twenty-"

“Almost twenty-one."

"—and we're from different worlds, which I respect. I respect you and your wonderful family ... your centeredness, your certainty. I want to do this only because it's what I owe you."

“Why should you owe me anything?"

“Well, actually, I owe Phimie. It's what she said between her two deaths on the delivery table that's changed my life."

Rowena loves you, Phimie had told him, briefly repressing the effects of her stroke to speak with clarity. Beezil and Feezil are safe with her Messages from his lost wife and children, where they waited for him beyond this life.

Beseechingly, with no intention of intimacy, he took Celestina's hands in his. “For years, as an obstetrician, I brought life into the world, but I didn't know what life was, didn't grasp the meaning of it, that it even had meaning. Before Rowena, Harry, and Danny went down in that airplane, I was already ... empty. After losing them, I was worse than empty. Celestina, I was dead inside. Phimie gave me hope. I can't repay her, but I can do something for her daughter and for you, if you'll let me."

Her hands trembled in his, and his shook as well.

When she didn't at once accept his generosity, he said, “All my life, I've lived just to get through the day. First survival. Then achievement, acquisition. Houses, investments, antiques ... There's nothing wrong with any of that. But it didn't fill the emptiness. Maybe one day I'll return to medicine. But that's a hectic existence, and right now I want peace, calm, time to reflect. Whatever I do from here on . . . I want my life to have a degree of purpose it's never had before. Can you understand that?"

“I was raised to understand it,” said Celestina, and when she looked across the room, she saw that her words had moved her mother.

“We could get you out of here tomorrow,” Lipscomb suggested.

“I've got classes tomorrow and Wednesday, but none Thursday."

“Thursday it is,” he said, clearly delighted to be receiving only a third of the fair-market rental from his apartment.

“Thank you, Dr. Lipscomb. I'll keep track of what you're losing every month, and someday I'll pay it back to you."