“You think you could kick some wolf butt, huh?
“Bam!” Angel said, watching her reflection as she booted an imaginary wolf.
Retrieving a coat from the closet, shrugging into it, Celestina said, “You should have worn green, Miss Hood. Then the wolf would never recognize you."
“Don't feel like a frog today."
“You don't look like one, either."
“You're pretty, Mommy."
“Why, thank you very much, sugarpie."
“Am I pretty?"
“It's not polite to ask for a compliment."
“But am I?"
“Sometimes I'm not sure,” said Angel, frowning at herself in the mirror.
“Trust me. You're a knockout."
Celestina dropped to one knee in front of Angel, to tie the drawstrings of the hood under the girl's chin.
“Mommy, why are dogs furry?"
“Where did dogs come from?"
“I wonder about that, too."
“No,” Celestina said, “I mean, why are we talking about dogs all of a sudden?"
” 'Cause they're like wolves."
“Oh, right. Well, God made them furry."
“Why didn't God make me furry?"
“Because He didn't want you to be a dog.” She finished tying a bow in the drawstrings. “There. You look just like an M&M."
“Well, you're sweet, aren't you? And you're all bright red on the outside and milk chocolate inside,” Celestina said, gently tweaking the girl's light brown nose.
“I'd rather be a Mr. Goodbar."
“Then you'll have to wear yellow."
In the hall that served the two ground-floor apartments, they encountered Rena Moller, the elderly woman who lived in the unit across from theirs. She was polishing the dark wood of her front door with lemon oil, a sure sign that her son and his family were coming to dinner.
“I'm an M&M,” Angel proudly told their neighbor, as Celestina locked the door.
Rena was cheerful, short, and solid. Her waist measurement must have been two-thirds her height, and she favored floral dresses that emphasized her girth. With a German accent and in a voice that always seemed about to dissolve in a great gale of mirth, she said, “Madchen lieb, you look like a Christmas candle to me."
“Candles melt. I don't want to melt."
“M&M's melt, too,” Rena warned.
“Do wolves like candy?"
“Maybe. I don't know from wolves, liebling.
Angel said, “You look like a flower garden, Mrs. Moller."
“I do, don't I,” Rena agreed, as with one plump hand she spread the pleated skirt of her brightly patterned dress.
“A big garden."
“Angel!” Celestina gasped, mortified.
Rena laughed. “Oh, but true! And not just a garden. I'm a field of flowers!” She let go of her skirt, which shimmered like cascades of falling petals. “So tonight will be a famous night, Celestina."
“Wish me luck, Rena."
“Big success, total sellout. I predict!"
“I'll be relieved if we sell one painting."
“All! Good as you are. Not one left. I know."
“From your lips to God's ear."
“Wouldn't be the first time,” Rena assured her.
Outside, Celestina took Angel's hand as they descended the front steps to the street.
Their apartment was in a four-story Victorian house that dripped gingerbread, in the exclusive Pacific Heights district. It had been converted to apartments with deep respect for the architecture, years before Wally bought it.
Wally's own house was in the same neighborhood, a block and a half away, a three-story Victorian gem that he entirely occupied.
Twilight, nearly gone and purple in the west, inspired a bright violet line along the crest of an incoming bank of bay fog, as though the mist were shot through with a luminous vein of neon, transforming the entire sparkling city into a stylish cabaret just now opening for business. The night, soft as a woman come to dance, carried a steely blade of cold in its black-silk skirts.
Celestina checked her wristwatch and saw that she was running late. With Angel's short legs and layers of red, there was no point in trying to hurry.
“Where does the blue go?” the girl asked.
“What blue, sugarpie?"
“The sky blue."
“It follows the sun."
“Where does the sun go?"
“It owns a house there."
“Real estate's cheaper."
“I'm not buying this."
“Would I lie?"
“No. But you'd tease."
They arrived at the first comer and crossed the intersection. Their exhalations plumed frostily. Breathing ghosts, Angel called it.
“You behave yourself tonight,” Celestina said.
“Am I staying with Uncle Wally?"
“With Mrs. Ornwall."
“Why does she live with Uncle Wally?"
“You know that. She's his housekeeper."
“Why don't you live with Uncle Wally?"
“I'm not his housekeeper, am l?"
“Isn't Uncle Wally home tonight?"
“Only for a little while. Then he is joining me at the gallery, and after the show's over, we're having dinner together."
“Will you eat cheese?"
“Will you eat chicken?"
“Why do you care what we eat?"
“I'm gonna eat some cheese."
“I'm sure Mrs. Ornwall will make you a grilled-cheese sandwich if you want."
“Look at our shadows. They're in front, then they go behind."
“Because we keep passing the streetlamps."
“They must be dirty, huh?"
“Our shadows. They're always on the ground."
“I'm sure they're filthy."
“So then where does the black go?"
“The black sky. In the morning. Where's it go, Mommy?"
“I don't have a clue."
“I thought you knew everything."
“I used to.” Celestina sighed. “My brain's not working well right now."
“Eat some cheese."
“Are we back to that?"
“It's brain food."
“Cheese? Who says?"
“The cheese man on TV."
“You can't believe everything you see on TV, sugarpie."
“Captain Kangaroo doesn't lie."
“No, he doesn't. But Captain Kangaroo isn't the cheese man."
Wally's house was half a block ahead. He was standing on the side walk, talking to a taxi driver. Her cab had already arrived.
“Let's hurry, sugarpie."
“Do they know each other?"
“Uncle Wally and the cab driver? I don't think so."
“No. Captain Kangaroo and the cheese man."
“They probably do."
“Then the Captain should tell him not to lie."
“I'm sure he will."
“What is brain food?"
“Fish maybe. You remember to say your prayers tonight."
“I always do."
“Remember to ask a God-bless for me and Uncle Wally and Grandma and Grandpa-"
“I'm gonna pray for the cheese man, too."
“That's a good idea."
“Will you eat some bread?"
“I'm sure we will."
“Put some fish on it."
Grinning, Wally held his-arms out, and Angel ran to him, and he scooped her up from the sidewalk. He said, “You look like a chili pepper."
“The cheese man is a rotten liar,” she announced.
Handing the satchel to Wally, Celestina said, “Dolls, crayons, and her toothbrush."
To Angel, the taxi driver said, “Why, you sure are a lovely young lady, aren't you?"
“God didn't want me to be a dog,” Angel told him.
“Is that so?"
“He didn't make me furry."
“Gimme a kiss, sugarpie,” Celestina said, and her daughter planted a wet smooch on her cheek. “What're you gonna dream about?"
“You,” said Angel, who occasionally had nightmares.
“What kind of dreams are they gonna be?"
“Only good ones."
“What happens if the stupid boogeyman dares to show up in your dream?"
“You'll kick his hairy butt,” Angel said.
“Better hurry,” Wally advised, gracing Celestina's other cheek with a dryer kiss.
The reception was from six o'clock to eight-thirty. If she were to arrive on time, guardian angels would have to be perched on all the traffic lights along the way.
In the cab, pulling into traffic, the driver said, “The mister tells me you're the star of the show tonight."
Celestina turned in her seat to look back at Wally and Angel, who were waving. “I guess I am."
“Do they say 'break a leg' in the art world?"
“I don't see why not."
“Then break a leg."
The cab turned the comer. Wally and Angel were lost to sight.
Facing forward again, Celestina suddenly laughed with delight.
Glancing at her in the rearview mirror, the driver said, “Pretty exhilarating, huh? Your first big show?"
“I guess so, but it's not that. I was thinking of something my little girl said."
Celestina succumbed to a fit of giggles. Before she could control them, she used up two Kleenex to blow her nose and to blot the laughter from her eyes.
“She seems like a pretty special kid,” the driver said.
“I sure think so. I think she's everything. I tell her she's the moon and stars. I'm probably spoiling her rotten."
“Nah. Lovin' them isn't the same as spoilin' them."
Dear Lord, how she loved her sugarpie, her little M&M. Three years had passed in what seemed like a month, and although there had been stress and struggle, too few hours in every day, less time for her art than she would have liked, and little or no time for herself, she wouldn't have traded being blindsided by motherhood for any amount of wealth, not for anything in the world ... except to have Phimie back. Angel was the moon, the sun, the stars, and all the comets streaking through infinite galaxies: an ever-shining light.
Wally's help, not just with the apartment, but with his time and love, had made an incalculable difference.
Celestina often thought of his wife and twin boys-Rowena, Danny, and Harry—dead in that airliner crash six years ago, and sometimes she was pierced by a sense of loss so poignant that they might have been members of her own family. She grieved as much over their loss of Wally as over his loss of them, and as blasphemous as the thought might be, she wondered why God had been so cruel as to sunder such a family. Rowena, Danny, and Harry had crossed all waters of suffering and lived now eternally in the kingdom. One day they would all be rejoined with the special husband and father they had lost; but even the reward of Heaven seemed inadequate compensation for being denied so many years here on earth with a man as good and kind and big of heart as Walter Lipscomb.
He'd wanted to give Celestina more help than she would accept. She continued working nights as a waitress for two years, while she completed classes at the Academy of Art College, and she quit her job only when she began to sell her paintings for enough to equal her wages and gratuities.
Initially, Helen Greenbaum, at Greenbaum Gallery, had taken on three canvases, and had sold them within a month. She took four more, then another three when two of the four moved quickly. By the time that she'd placed ten pieces with collectors, Helen decided to include Celestina in a show of six new artists. And now, already, she had a show of her own.
Her first year at college, she had hoped only to be able one day to earn a living as an illustrator for magazines or on the staff of an advertising agency. A career in the fine arts, of course, was every painter's fantasy, the full freedom to explore her talent; but she would have been grateful for the realization of a much humbler dream. Now, she was just twenty-three, and the world hung before her like a ripe plum, and she seemed able to reach high enough to pluck it off the branch.
Sometimes Celestina marveled at how intimately and inextricably the tendrils of tragedy and joy were intertwined in the vine of life. Sorrow was often the root of future joy, and joy could be the seed of sorrow yet to come. The layered patterns in the vine were so complex, so enrapturing in their lush detail and so fearsome in their wild inevitability, that she could fill uncountable canvases, through many lifetimes as an artist, striving to capture the enigmatic nature of existence, in all its beauty dark and bright, and in the end merely suggest the palest shadow of its mystery.
And the irony of ironies: With her talent deepening to a degree that she had never dared hope it would, with collectors responding to her vision to an extent she had never imagined possible, with her goals already exceeded, and with great vistas of possibility opening before her, she would throw it all away with some regret but with no bitterness if required to choose between art and Angel, for the child had proved to be the greater blessing. Phimie was gone, but Phimie's spirit fed and watered her sister's life, bringing forth a great abundance.
“Here we are,” said the driver, braking to a stop at the curb in front of the gallery.
Her hands shook as she counted out the fare and the tip from her wallet. “I'm scared sick. Maybe you should just take me right back home."
Turning around in his seat, watching with amusement as Celestina fumbled nervously with the currency, the cabbie said, “You're not scared, not you. Sitting back there so silent most all the way, you weren't thinking about being famous. You were thinking about that girl of yours."
“I know you, kid. You can handle anything from here on, whether it's a sold-out show or it's not, whether you're going to be famous or just another nobody."
“You must be thinking of someone else,” she said, pushing a wad of bills into his hand. “Me, I'm a jellyfish in high heels."