Mr. Bradley was to stay home that evening while Ms. Bradley went to a work party. The child, three months old and absolutely useless, could not be left alone. The couple had help in the afternoon, but their nanny, Gertrude, had to leave at 6:00. Mr. Bradley arrived home at 5:30, made a drink, kicked off his shoes, and settled into the den with a book. Just before she left, Gertrude called to Mr. Bradley in his study.
“The baby’s napping,” she said.
From his high-backed chair he waved his hand in the air without looking up. “Yes,” he said, as if making it so.
At 8:00 a panic arose in him—he had not once checked on the child. He placed the book face down on the leather ottoman, being sure not to lose his place, and took the flight of stairs to the nursery. In the doorway he put his hand to the light switch but did not turn it on. The black cutout of his figure spread across the face of the crib and the opposite wall, his baby fitting neatly into the trapezoid shadow of his stomach. The hall light buzzed—an octave higher than his voice could reach; the refrigerator downstairs made ice with a tremendous clunk. Nothing happened. Mr. Bradley was certain, more certain than he had ever been about anything, that he was alone in the house. He could not move to justify his suspicion; if he were right, then—No, he did not think it through. It was inconceivable; his brain was mush. He hovered in the doorway, suddenly too warm for his clothes. He had never seen a dead body before. Meanwhile the baby did not move out of its shadow. Mr. Bradley was certain: it had not made a sound, it had not turned or kicked, it had done nothing at all. He was alone in the house.
Then he was in the street, running.
It was only after an hour had passed—as though his body knew that Ms. Bradley was soon to come home—that he circled back around toward the house. He would never be able to remember where he had gone or what he had done, and he would never tell his wife about it until one day toward the end of particularly cold winter on the night that their only child had given birth to their only grandchild. For now he would remain quiet. He approached his house as if he had not been there for twenty years, as if he were Odysseus and were exhausted, inspired, and guilty about his travels. He loitered around the lip of the driveway, where the property met the road. She might be inside; he did not want to interrupt her, to be there when she learned what he had done. Without seeing them, he noticed the garbage bin and instinctively took its handle and pulled it up the drive; just as he was disappearing around the side of the house, Ms. Bradley drove up and into the garage. Thinking she had not seen him, he stayed outside: the garage door closed and he waited for the scream. He kept close against the side of the house, as if trying to avoid being seen from the upper windows. A huckleberry bush grew there; he plucked its leaves with one hand and collected them in another. By the time Ms. Bradley had come outside, the baby in her arms, he had compiled a shovelful of tiny leaves and few incidental twigs between his feet.
“I’m not sure who is,” she said, bobbing up and down, “but I certainly know who is not the smartest person in the world.”
“Barbara,” he said without thinking.
“That woman might actually be mentally handicapped. You would not believe what she said to Paul tonight; she was—,” and then she stopped suddenly, as she continued to bob while frowning at his feet. “What are you doing out here?” It was then that a hollow pop—like a suction cup coming unstuck—bubbled up and spat itself out on his wife’s shoulder. His wife patted away the burp and Mr. Bradley came back to life.
“Oh,” he said, all at once aware that night had fallen, “nothing much. I was just reminiscing.”
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