ophie." Her teacher sat with her hands folded in her bulging lap as Megan smiled encouragingly at her across the low table in the Allcomers Full Day Family room, wishing she'd get on with it. It was the mid-year parent-teacher conference and Mary had already stalled her with too many pleasantries. "Sophie," Mary began again, and Megan widened her smile, "is a couple of beats behind."
"What?" Megan said, the smile dropping from her reddening face, waves of shame and doubt and antipathy crowding instantly in. There hadn't been an incident since before Thanksgiving, and then it was only the one. Who the hell was this woman? "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
Mary's finger idly traced a circle on the table. "She's behind," she said firmly. "A couple of steps. In everything. When it's time to get her towel for story time, she's the last one to do it. When it's time to get her lunch out, I have to tell her about five times. When it's time for pickup, she's the last one out the gate. Always a couple steps. Always has to be reminded. Most of the days she sits on that sofa and stares at the kids playing around her. She can't keep up with them. She's overwhelmed."
"We," Megan said, "we never knew."
"I think you have to consider this year a wash." Mary smiled gently. "Who can say that she shouldn't have been in threes and fours instead of up here in fours and fives. You bring her back here next year, and she'll be more in her element. You hadn't been thinking about kindergarten for her, had you?" Her eyebrows peeked imploringly from above her black-rimmed glasses.
"Well, I..." She was reeling, but she had to keep her mouth shut, had to get everything from this woman that she possibly could. "I mean," she said softly, "of course you know Sophie in a whole different way than we do."
"That's exactly right," Mary nodded vigorously, "and she won't be ready. It's nothing to be ashamed of. She has a late birthday--June, right? She could go either way. But she needs time." Mary laughed. "She's one of those kids who has her own internal rhythm. She needs to be in an environment where she can set her own pace, where she won't be rushed. You know, my Martha couldn't tie her shoes until she was nine. She's eleven, and she still can't ride a bike. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If you will love your child for who she is, she won't either."
"So you're saying that Sophie's behind in everything.'
"Everything," Mary said.
"Do you think there's anything we should be doing?"
She shook her head. "Let her grow. You know, a lot of these kids, they go right from a day at Allcomers to a play date, on the weekend they'll take gymnastics or swimming or ballet; they're pushed to grow. I don't believe in that. I believe that every child needs to become a person in their own good time." She brushed the lap of her gingham skirt and adjusted a strap of her Birkenstocks. "Our children are special. They're resisting the hurry-up and get-done world we live in. We need to honor that. We need to cherish that."
"But behind?" Megan tried to say it as if it were a word she was just interested in exploring.
"Behind." Mary nodded slowly, steadily. "But really, a wonderful child."
"Which skills would you say?"
"Like I've been saying." She smiled, as if explaining to yet another small child. "Social, definitely. Physical, absolutely. These are the ways we see her every day. You know yourself what a struggle potty time is. You know she could take the whole day just getting on her shoes and jacket."
"I thought she seemed pretty happy here--especially since Thanksgiving."
With finality, she shook her big head back and forth. "All the kids have cliqued up. Sophie doesn't have a clique. She doesn't have a set child or group of children that she's paired off with. She sits on that sofa for hours, staring off into space."
And this woman didn't do anything? Apparently that wasn't her job. The sofa was covered in a nubbed oatmeal fabric, splotched with dark paint stains. Its foam core protruded from one of the cushions, where the zipper had broken free. Threads of clawed upholstery stuck up like strands of hair. That was where Sophie spent her days. Megan cleared her throat.
"The other kids," she tried. "Were they all in the same group last year?"
"No." Mary smiled cheerfully. "Three or four were in one class, five in the other. Ten children, including Sophie, were brand new to everyone."
"Well," she said. "Well." She rose from the squat little chair. Mary stood, too. She seemed to be reaching for a consolatory hug, and Megan stumbled back from her approach and headed for the door. "I'm glad we've had the opportunity to talk."
"Oh I am too, Megan. Now we'll keep watching her, and if there are any changes, we'll let you know."
"But there's nothing we should be doing?"
"Keep loving her. Like I said, love her for who she is, not for who you wished she'd be."
Megan smiled faintly at the next parents--a woman in earrings, necklace, and some kind of stunning off-red dress, a man in a blue suit, both of whom had heard this last advice--and made her way down the stairs. It was closing in on noon, and the dark-haired assistant teacher was standing guard over Sophie's class in the near playground. Carol had always struck her as bitter and ironic; she'd fallen into teaching at the last minute; she'd rather be working on her music. Megan had always thought it was Mary who knew what she was doing, Mary who had taught at Allcomers for thirteen years, Mary who seemed to have a real passion for the children and for whom, it was obvious to Megan, Sophie had felt affection. Mary who condemned her child as "behind." She stood hidden in the doorway and tried to see Sophie. Strands of children chased in a large circle over the playground, wove their way up and through the treehouse-slide set. She couldn't find Sophie. A group of girls pushed one another on swings; three boys wrestled in a pile. Then she saw what appeared to be a much smaller girl, in a bright red jacket and red plaid skirt, sitting open-legged in the dirt. The girl cupped the dirt in one hand and let it sift down, cupped the dirt in the other hand and let it sift, the children swirling around her, her coat and skirt and ponytail slowly frosting with dirt. "Hi!" the children screamed as they roared past. Or "Don't run over her." Occasionally the girl looked up and smiled but mostly she concentrated on the dirt, the orange-red dirt of Charlotte, the dirt they dug through to add lanes to all the roads and make foundations for all the houses, the dirt they covered with pine needles whenever they tried to grow anything. For the whole time that Megan watched her that poor lonely girl with her sweet ponytail and the tacky red outfit she had chosen for herself played in the dirt. That girl who was behind.
He knew who Mary was. She was the fat bitch with the tree-trunk legs and the barn-sized behind. She wore a lot of denim, and her big fat face had thin judgmental lips and patronizing eyes set behind schoolteacher glasses. Once when he had dropped Sophie at Allcomers Fat Mary had glanced at his dented car and said, "Someone didn't stay awake, did they?"
Which was absolutely true: he'd fallen asleep at the wheel at two a.m. on the interstate between his father's heart surgery and Megan's grandmother's funeral. Even so, he hated Fat Mary.
"And you didn't just ram it down her throat?" He tried not to roar at Megan. Upstairs the children slept. What a fantastic refrain. He wished he could say it twenty times a day, not that he didn't love them when they were awake, but god the sugared silence of their sleep! They sat at the table with a half-empty bottle of wine between them.
"I wouldn't have gotten to know exactly what she thinks of our child," Megan said, "unless I kept my mouth shut and asked for it."
Warner tugged angrily at his hair, grabbed at his ear. "Well, now we know. We've got to get her out of there."
"Warner." She shook her head. He seemed as close to tears as to any other reaction. "We have moved around a lot. She needs stability. Mary does have some points. What we ought to do is work with Sophie and meet again with Mary, give her a second chance. If she can't say absolutely anything good about Sophie, then we have to get her out of there."
"Right," Warner said. He gulped his wine.
"You know, if we pull Sophie from Allcomers, she'll feel the failure."
"You want some ice cream?" he said. "I could use some ice cream."
"It's going to be all right," she said. "Let's not rush anything."
"But we're agreed." He rose from the table, his heart seeming to drop through his bowels, his stomach clenching. She kept looking at him. He couldn't quite believe that there was this, too. That it was January and he had only twelve thousand dollars worth of corporate pledges. That he'd made one hundred and fifty calls and printed two thousand brochures and sat through four dozen meetings. That Daniel teethed continuously, waking at midnight for two-hour seances of Tylenol and crackers and iced water. That he was on his third cold in four weeks, the tender grooved skin from his nostrils to the apex of his pouty upper lip crusted and red. They'd been getting her clothes on for her and washing her face for her and carrying her lunch bag for her, because of the constant hurry, and now he felt certain that they'd been letting her slide. That it was their fault. Megan kept looking at him, her lips crinkling--though he knew she wasn't about to cry--and he knew that she knew. That they'd somehow created this problem. This developmental issue. In Boston she'd been dressing herself, in the upside-down Somerville house with the cubbyhole basement bedrooms and the thumbsized kitchen, the box of a living room and the one bathroom. Nine hundred square feet for as much as they were now paying for fourteen hundred square feet. This had been a move up. But now Sophie was constipated and backward and he had to wonder if they should have stayed. Four people in nine hundred square feet. Other people did it.
She was next to him, holding him, her arms wrapped around his chest. He hugged her. They never hugged--who had time? He kissed her lips, she kissed his--slow, sweet, salty, not tongue, just lips, not sexual, but sensual. So maybe sexual. Yes, sexual. Could he have another one? There it was. Incredible. To think that it was always there and they could have it. Okay, not always. Only moments of always. Here in their eighth year of marriage, their twelfth year of together, their fifth year of children, he knew the range and the levels--the rareness of sex, the instants of passion, the impulses of loathing. When the kids roared around you and you roared at each other and you wondered, What the fuck am I doing in this? I never wanted this. I wanted Europe, women, South America, a lot of different bars, endless opportunity, endless challenge, endless uncertainty. Endless not knowing. Not this up at six, breakfast at seven, schools at eight, work at nine, schools at five, dinner at six, bedtime at eight, wine at nine crap. Not this weekend laundering, bathroom dousing, car servicing, grocery shopping, bargain hunting, closet cleaning shit. Fuck you for getting me into this. Fuck me for letting you. Fuck--
"Well," she said. She gave a shy tug on his belt.
He looked at her giving, generous, unlined face. A face he had known for a dozen years and still found amazement in. He couldn't even tell what color her eyes were--green or hazel, who the fuck knew? So there was comfort in being together. So you didn't have to go crazy. So he was all over the map tonight. Why should this night be different than any other night. Because on this night--
"Yes," he said. "Yes, please. Let's do."
Despite everything they began hunting for a house. They could not go higher than 150 and they preferred something a good deal lower. Sometimes they had to take the children with them, to nether South Park, the Arboretum, inner Elizabeth, lower Dilworth, Plaza Midwood, the fringe of Cotswold. At each place Sophie would wander the halls, flush the toilets in the bathrooms, turn on and off lights. "Is this going to be our house?" she'd ask. "Is this? Is this?"
They danced with one agent and the next and the next, not committing, always trying to get into the right place before anyone else could. It was a crazy market and anything wonderful went before it was even listed, always at the asking price or higher. A broker named Neal kept calling and leaving packets on their doorstep. The houses were all inevitably tiny or dingy or sterile boxes. Ten days into January Milicent called. "A place on the corner of Winthrop and Tremont," she said breathlessly into the answering machine. "Lower Dilworth--can you believe it? It's perfect for you all. You'll love it. The agent's name is Bobbie Ray Bingham. I don't know her or anything. It hasn't gone on the market yet. If you can get ahold of her today, you can get in there before anyone else. At the least you ought to drive by and see what you think. Let me know."
They drove by. It was a corner house with yellow vinyl siding, a big yard. Three bedrooms, a changing-for-the-better block of lower Dilworth. They left a message on Bobbie Ray's pager. In the evening she called.
"All right," she said. "Because it's you and you're a family and it being a new year and all, I can get you in there tomorrow at eight-thirty. Does that work?"
"Yes," Megan said.
"That's lucky. Because it goes on the market at ten and we've had a half-dozen serious calls already."
She showed at eight-thirty in a black Lexus.
"You're on time," she called out, popping from the car in a white cowboy hat, a pair of gold chains around her neck, white hair coiffed and blown back from the sides of her face. She handed them each her card with a color picture of her in the hat: Bobbie Ray gingham, $2,000,000 Club. "And these are the children." She bent to Sophie and offered her hand.
"I'm Bobbie Ray Bingham, sweetheart, and you know what, I bet you anything you all are going to be living here."
She led them around back to a wide deck and a door with a lock box, opened it up, and stepped aside. "Take your time, take your time. You need to be sure. I'll just stand to the side and be available for any questions. You won't get a hard sell from me. This property doesn't need it."
Warner carried in Daniel, and Megan took Sophie's hand. Through a shotgun kitchen was an L-shaped living room that wrapped around what could be the nursery, sided on two walls by French doors. The master bedroom had a narrow, new white shower with a built-in ledge you could sit on while you bathed. Sophie's room fronted the street next to a large, woodpanelled dining room, off of which was a sunroom with a concrete floor and a fireplace. The pull-down attic steps ascended to a fully reinforced storage space that could be broken out with dormer windows and new flooring.
"This could work," Megan said.
The heat seemed strong, the air-conditioning faint. There was no basement. But it was all wood floors, white walls save for the dining room and master bedroom, a lot of generous windows.
"You have our checkbook?" he whispered to Megan.
"Yes," she said.
They went out and walked around the house. It was larger on the inside, pleasingly broken up, but the lot was big and there was a storage shed at the end of the gravel driveway.
"A block or two," Bobbie Ray delicately pointed out, "to stores and shops."
"Well," Warner said. He turned to Megan. "What do you think?"
"What do yon think?"
They seemed to be smiling insanely at each other.
"What do we do now," Warner asked Bobbie Ray. "We've never bought a house before."
"First-time buyers?" Bobbie Ray threw out her arms in welcome. "I love it." Quickly she explained that if they really truly did like the house, if they really truly were ready to make an offer, then they should go back to her office and put in the bid. All they'd need was a check for the earnest.
"Well?" Warner said to Megan.
"Well?" Megan said.
"I guess we'll follow you," he told Bobbie Ray.
At the carpeted, ringing of fice Bobbie Ray dished up lollipops for the kids and pens and forms for the parents. The asking price was $141,000, but if you wanted to be sure, if you really wanted to be sure, you needed to make your best offer first, Bobbie Ray said.
"Does it have to be higher?" Megan asked.
"Doesn't have to be. Now, I'm your agent. I'm not the seller's agent, and my job is to advise you. Of course it doesn't have to be. But it could be, and it should be if you're really sure, if you really want it accepted."
"How would that work," Warner said flatly. "I mean, how much more are we talking here?"
"Not a lot. Could be a thousand more, could be two, could be five hundred. Depending on how strongly you all felt."
"I think," Megan said, looking directly at Warner, "that we feel pretty strongly."
"I do," Warner said. "I do. I just don't know that we need to offer more."
"You don't," Bobbie Ray said. "You don't. You offer what you're comfortable with. You offer what's in your heart."
"Yes," Warner said.
Behind them on the floor the children began to swirl.
"It's almost ten," Bobbie Ray said. "Do you all need a minute by yourselves?"
"Please," Warner said, scooping up Daniel.
Bobbie Ray stepped from behind her desk and smiled warmly at them. "I love you all like I love my own children," she said. "I wouldn't want you all to do whatever wasn't absolutely best for you."
Warner smiled stonily and Megan just looked at her. Bobbie Ray shut the door behind her.
"Creepy," he said.
"They're all creepy," Megan said.
"I want another lollipop," Sophie said.
"A thousand or five hundred isn't that much," Megan tried.
"A thousand or five hundred is a thousand or five hundred," Warner said.
"So what are you saying?" Her face reddened. "That you want to offer only the price? I thought you liked the house."
"I do,I do."
"If we don't buy this house, we're not buying a house," Megan said.
"We're not buying a house?" Sophie began to shriek.
"Honey, " Warner said. Something in his tone was terrible, and Daniel exploded in tears. Warner held him. Someone knocked on the door and Bobbie Ray poked her head in, strode in holding her hands behind her back.
"Look what I have!" she said suddenly. She brought out a matching zebra cat Beanie Baby for each child. Instantly the children fell quiet. "You all can keep them," she said, handing them over. She sat back behind her desk. "So what did you all decide?" she said softly.
Megan and Warner looked at each other and said nothing.
"Why don't you," Bobbie Ray pushed the form toward Warner, "write the number you feel best about on the line that says bid."
"Okay," he said. He wrote $141,OOO and showed it to Megan. She nodded without expression. He slid the form back to Bobbie Ray.
"That's fine," she said. "That's fine." She smiled at them. "Now what about the earnest? You can-go as low as a thousand and as high as you want, though you really don't need to go higher than four or five thousand."
"A thousand," Warner said.
"A thousand's fine," Megan said. She pulled out the checkbook and wrote the check.
"Is that it?" Warner asked.
"That's it!" Bobbie Ray rose and shook both their hands. "We'll have the offer in to their listing agent in about ten minutes, and we'll know within seventy-two hours, I believe."
"Thank you," Warner and Megan said. They all shook hands again.
"Congratulations!" Bobbie Ray said.
In the car Megan said, "I suppose I'll never have a house."
"Oh we'll get a house," he said as he drove them back toward Crape Myrtle Hill. "I just don't think it has to be that house."
"You didn't like it?" she said. "Then why did we make an offer?"
"Oh, I liked it," he said. "It was a little dark, is all. A little small, a little tight. But I liked it."
"Whatever," she said.
The first day after the seventy-two hours Monique put through a call from Bobbie Ray Bingham. Warner picked up the phone, bracing himself.
"Is this Mr. Warner Lutz?" Bobbie Ray asked.
"Hey, Bobbie Ray," he said.
"I mean," she said, and he could hear the triumph pouring from her voice, "is this Mr. Warner Lutz, the new homeowner!"
"You're kidding me!" he said, his throat filling with an undeniable elation. "You're just kidding me."
"No, sir," she met his loudness. "No sir. You get your home at your price. You stuck to your guns and showed us all something."
"Unbelievable!" he roared back at her. "Unbelievable. This is wonderful news. I've got to call Megan. Thank you so much, Bobbie Ray."
"Thank you," she said, "thank you. You go ahead now and I'll be in touch later on in the day."
Instantly he dialed Megan. "Hey," he said, "we got it!"
"What?" She was truly startled. She'd already given up on it.
"The house," he said. "We fucking got the house."
Between them they delegated the mortgage broker, the inspector, the task of collecting all the files for the financing. On the phone she seemed to kiss him good-bye. "I love you," she said.
He walked giddily out into the office, grinning. He felt as if he'd just had another child, or won a kind of award. He felt as if he ought to be handing out cigars. He was a homeowner! It was a sweet little house, really perfect for them at this stage of their lives. And in three or five years, the way things went around here, the resale value would be astronomical. Well, maybe not astronomical, but pretty damn good. He thought of telling Fenton but Fenton had cancer and news of the future seemed inappropriate. He didn't really know Monique. The others were all out on projects. He wished he could tell someone. He was a homeowner! He strolled back to his office and sat down. What a sweet little house. What a sweet little neighborhood. Now they'd be really living in the South. Now it would all feel like an adventure to him. Lower Dilworth. Unbelievable.
"Richard, line two," Monique said over the intercom. "Hello, there," Warner said.
"Hello yourself. I got a lead for you over at TransOne."
Richard fed him the name and number. "How much do we have in so far."
"Fifteen," Warner counted. "But that ought to climb quickly."
"It'd better. What are we short now, two-sixty?"
"Uh-hunh. But fifteen in new corporate money for an organization that has never had corporate support before, in all of six weeks, that's not bad."
"I guess not," Richard admitted.
"Hey," Warner said, "I bought a house."
"What?" Richard said quickly.
"Megan and I, we had our offer on a house accepted."
"Well." Richard paused. "Well, well. Good for you! When's the closing?"
"Thirty days, I think."
"Good. Good, good. Listen, I've got to run. I'll talk to you soon. Call TransOne, all right?"
"Right," Warner said. He hung up and looked at the phone. So Richard wasn't that happy about the house. But Warner was turning things around. They did have new money coming in. Not a lot, but some, and it had come quickly. Fifteen was fifteen, was what he knew. It was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
Excerpted from Six Figures by Fred Leebron. Copyright © 2000 by Fred Leebron. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.