by Wendy Marcus

When she’d opened  the front door that sunny spring afternoon, Lenni’s nurturing side trumped her nervousness. “Let me make you a cup of tea,” she’d said impulsively to the forensic psychologist, a moment of civility, a turning point even, in a pitched custody battle.

The psychologist had landed on one of the tall kitchen stools by the breakfast bar from which Lenni’s girls, Rachel and Julie, could be seen in the backyard. The boy, Shane, was on the tire swing. Teacups in hand, the two women moved outside to a patio table, the scene, in Lenni’s mind, like a visit between next-door neighbors. The psychologist sniffed a rose and gave a faint smile, the first and only one that afternoon. Nature as transformative agent, Lenni had confirmed silently, hearing in her head the lines of the prayer she’d started memorizing.

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day

Among the trees and grass.

The psychologist’s questions for Lenni had started with one not on the form. “Who’s the gardener?”

Lenni pointed to herself. After keeping company with insensate books all day, she needed the fleshy feel of stalk and leaf to clear her mind of sages past, prophetesses present. “I’m the librarian for the Jewish Studies Department only by day,” she’d said with a pleased smile.

*   *   *

Lenni thought of that spring interview as she now watched the forensic psychologist, voice like flaking skin, respond to one of the attorneys. “Randall Sidoine’s partner, Lenni Mackoff, presented as non-defensive, appropriately concerned, and committed to fostering his son Shane’s emotional and academic success.”

The judge told the psychologist to speak louder.

“Most notable during the one-hour interview was a lack of anger or vindictiveness common for involved parties in high-conflict custody matters. Ms. Mackoff made few comments regarding Shane’s mother during the interview and focused her observations and concerns on the child.” The forensic psychologist might have been reading a grocery list for all her seeming interest in the subject–a professional tedium from years of stewarding opposing parents, Lenni figured. Only prophets raged more loudly as the years progressed, treating minor intransigence as cosmic injustice.

“All children present during the parent-child observations were comfortable with Ms. Mackoff and sought her out for conversation and attention. She was gently supportive, flexible, and child-centered in her interactions with them.”

If there were no more questions, the judge said, the forensic psychologist could step down. And step out of Shane’s life, Lenni mused. No wonder the woman needed to be detached—her window of time with them was finite and she knew it. Parents, on the other hand, were dumbfounded at the prospect of having a child removed from their lives. Or taken from them by death. Lenni shuddered and thought of the small book on her bed table. She had meant to put it out on the library shelves. Instead, she had brought it home. Each night she pored over the 18th century lines written by Ukrainian rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, who poured his personal anguish into majestic leaps.

God, grant me the ability to be alone.

She had written her response to him on the only paper handy, a bank receipt, and folded it carefully into her wallet. Ego is no match against the enormousness of eternity.

The day’s last witness was called, Shane’s elementary school principal.

The principal answered the attorney’s questions with great gravity, as if reluctant to release his words into the courtroom.

“Yes,” the principal intoned. “On numerous occasions, Shane Sidoine’s mother, Crystal Waltham, told me she should, and I quote, ‘just go home and kill myself.’”

The courtroom shrank as the participants sucked in air, Crystal Waltham gasping loudest of all. She glared into space and muttered.

The judge called the two attorneys to the bench.  

Crystal used the pause to look in Lenni’s direction. Crystal tilted her head back and mouthed “bitch” into the air, the word drifting down to the gray tile floor like dying tails of fireworks. Lenni looked into her lap, pressed her hands together hard.

*    *    *

Not long after the trial, Randall and Lenni’s attorney called them with the good news. The judge had given them full custody. Shane could visit his mother two weekends a month. Crystal’s bizarre behavior was endangering the boy’s mental health, the judge had ruled. Besides, she could never get him to school on time. 

Randall wept quietly, spent emotionally and financially. Lenni stroked the back of his neck. She closed her eyes, offered up a silent prayer of thanks. There was still half the summer left. She thought of garden tools to buy Shane and of worms and black dirt: the stuff of little boys.

A week later, Shane and his first box came to their house for good. He stood in the entry, a scrawny six-year-old, not making eye contact with anyone. He called Lenni “her” in withering tones. Lenni’s girls escorted him up the stairs to show him his cleaned and decorated room. He responded by slamming the bedroom door, leaving Rachel, Julie, Randall and Lenni wide-eyed and silent.

The first morning of his officially living at their house, Lenni walked into the kitchen to see Shane standing on a chair pushed against the counter. Hugging a cereal box to his chest, he placed a flake at a time into his mouth.

Lenni was surprised. He’d regressed. It was like the first times he had come to visit them. “Shane, we sit down at the table with a bowl and a spoon,” she said guiding him, hand on his shoulder, to the table. Shane looked straight ahead and upended the box, dumping cereal onto the table and the floor. Lenni steered him to the broom closet with a firm hold on his upper arm. “You’ll need to clean your mess,” she said. He broke away and ran outside, calling her names not before heard in the Sidoine-Mackoff household. She wondered if Shane thought she meant to shut him up in the closet.

“He’s used to survival mode,” Randall later told her after hearing about the incident. “Go easy on him. He doesn’t know his mother is nuts. Life wasn’t good or bad, it just was. He’ll eventually learn the difference.”

Lenni simplified her requests, used fewer words. “Look into my face. Say thank you. What’s the magic word? Please clear your place. Please speak up. Say good-bye when you leave. Say thank you.”

Words of gratitude wake up your soul to goodness. She tore off the corner of the calendar where she had scribbled her thought and put the scrap in her apron pocket.

The next day a search for her hair dryer ended in Shane’s room. He was building a hovercraft with it. In bed that night, Lenni put Rabbi Nachman away and turned to Randall. “He’s worn the same clothes for days and he needs a shower.”

“Please, just wash them when he goes to sleep. He needs to wear the same clothes.”

The following morning, Lenni put down a small plate in front of Shane. On the table sat a frying pan, which earlier had been used to make French toast for the girls.

“I can’t eat here,” Shane said, standing by the table. Lenni was puzzled. The half banana on the plate was cut into five neat slices, how he liked it. The granola bar was unwrapped precisely an inch.

“That frying pan—it bugs me.”

She picked it up wordlessly and carried it into the kitchen. What an odd duck.

Months went by before Shane allowed her an affectionate stroke to the top of his head. Once, while watching Lenni massage Julie’s feet, Shane walked up and swayed from side to side, watching hungrily. “I’ll do yours too,” Lenni offered. He scooted backwards before she could touch him.

“I don’t need for him to love me,” Lenni told Randall as they brushed teeth before bed. “I’ll just keep showing Shane love.” It couldn’t hurt to ask for his heart to soften a little. She fixed on Rabbi Nachman’s words.

And may I enter into prayer.

May I express there everything in my heart.

*   *   *

Lenni brought Shane out to the uncultivated part of the garden. “You can grow anything you like here,” she offered, pushing a shovel into the rich soil. “You like blueberries. Maybe some blueberry bushes?” Shane surveyed the area and scratched his head. He made a small “hmm” sound.

“I’d get dirt under my fingernails.”

A little boy who couldn’t get dirty. He faded back into the house.

Lenni bought three blueberry bushes anyway and set the black plastic pots on the gravel walk next to Shane’s designated area in the garden. After waiting a few days, she planted them herself.

Again and again she dreamed of her own little boy, furnace-toasty, crawling into the big bed with her and Randall in the morning. “Come snuggle,” she would say, spooning her body around pudgy little legs, she and her baby drifting off to sleep.

Lenni called the fertility clinic the week they paid off the legal fees. It had taken a year. Randall learned they needed to start with him—an immunobead test to prove nasty antibodies weren’t hitchhiking on the tails of his sperm.

“Can’t I just take in pictures of my son?” He grabbed his crotch in mock outrage, one hand on the steering wheel. They were driving in the van across Lake Washington to the Eastside clinic. “It works. It works.”

It was kind of a date. Randall got to ejaculate. Then they drove west back across the bridge, Randall relating the details of procuring a sample for the clinic.

“Pretty weird,” he said. “In the video, this woman comes walking along the beach with only a bikini bottom on and there are five guys sitting around and she says ‘I’m horny.’ Five guys. I kept wondering, is this film for women or for men, until I figured out they had five guys of different sizes and colors so that whoever you were, trying to jerk off, you could identify with one of them.”

The clinic doctor required a perinatologist’s seal of approval before he would set up Lenni’s in vitro fertilization cycle.

The perinatologist was tan and courtly.

“I prefer to say advanced maternal age.” Dr. Walker smiled, alighting from his white horse and pulling out a chair at the conference table. “Other terms can be so demeaning: maternal senescence, elderly gravida.” He waved the phrases away with a flick of his Rolex-weighted wrist.

Lenni didn’t care about the verbiage—one sounded like a refreshing herbal shampoo, the other like something that had been in the refrigerator too long. She just needed his approval.

Dr. Walker ran down the red-flag list. Regular periods, no toxemia with previous pregnancies, no gestational diabetes, no early labor.

“So why are you going IVF?” he asked, puzzlement creeping into his polite manner.

“I was thirty-eight when my second daughter was born and thirty-nine—that seemed ancient even then—when my first husband left me. My new husband and I have been trying for two years.” Lenni pleaded. She wanted their own boy, a clean slate, not someone else’s damaged goods.

She saw the doctor’s eyes flick over to her birth date on the form. He made no denigrating remark, the prince. Dr. Walker told her she was his first forty-eight-year-old patient and declared her fit.

She wondered how her girls would take to a new baby in the house if she got pregnant. They had genially accepted Randy as the new man of the house. Yet, it would be another change in the family script.

Rachel, the thirteen-year-old, had washed her hands of Shane, calling him inscrutable, unsociable. Second daughter, Julie, two years younger, mostly watched. Her eyes followed Shane’s patterns: how he wiped his mouth after each bite, where he crept to dismantle the alarm clock, how he stole matches and skewer sticks, how he never, ever wore a different pair of socks. 

Shane started first grade. Each day after school, he quietly let himself in the front door and tiptoed up to his room, taking great care to close the door without a sound. From time to time, he emerged for rubber bands, paper or wine bottle corks Lenni saved. What, of mine, is he taking apart in there? Lenni wondered. The debris or a completed project often ended up on the dining room table by evening.

Once Shane was asleep, Lenni put everything back in his box and placed the collection outside his door. By bedtime the next night, gears, screws and duct tape were all over the dining room table again. Lenni never said anything. She relished this unspoken dialogue.

As the school year continued, Shane began clumping down the stairs in the afternoons looking for Julie, who, with Rachel, attended middle school in a different neighborhood. Soon, he wanted to know exactly what time they were supposed to get home. Then, what time the bus let them off down the block. He emerged from his room earlier and earlier, pacing in the living room.

He asked once, twice, sometimes three times, “What time is it?”

Lenni checked the kitchen clock one afternoon. “4:10. Julie should be getting off the bus right about now.”

Shane grabbed his jacket. He didn’t remember to say he was leaving, didn’t think to close the door. Lenni waited a moment before walking to the end of the driveway.

She peered around the hedge to the south. Shane’s clumsy, nearly spastic way of running made him easy to spot. His unzipped jacket swung from side to side. His little arms worked the air in an anxious attempt to propel himself forward.

He loves her, Lenni realized, wonder-struck. He has opened his heart to Julie. She watched until she saw his tiny head stop bobbing. She could make out Rachel walking ahead with a classmate, followed by Julie, arms full of books and bags. Lenni imagined Shane wanted to hug Julie but did not know how. He would wait for her to put everything down and hug him, the space between them filling with something unformed, yet unmistakable in its effect.

To talk to the One to whom I belong.

“I don’t get what you are doing that I’m not,” Lenni said after dinner to Julie.

“It’s not what I’m doing, really, it’s who I’m not,” Julie tossed back. “I’m not the evil stepmother.” Lenni stared at the girl. Once she had jumped into her lap, now she was jumping on her heart.

“Not that you are,” Julie hastened to say, seeing the sad downturn of her mother’s mouth.

In October, Shane’s school asked for a conference. Randall and Lenni sat across from Shane’s teacher, the school nurse, and the district psychologist and heard the words “Asperger’s Syndrome” for the first time.

“It’s what makes him so different. Brilliant in some areas, socially inept in others,” explained the psychologist, who wanted their consent to put Shane on small doses of Ritalin while in school. “We often see a family connection.” Lenni thought of Crystal Waltham’s inability to look directly at people, her muttering.

“He shows a spectrum of behaviors that could be classified as high-functioning autistic behaviors. Ritalin will help him focus better in the classroom.”

They said yes.

Back in the fertility clinic for the injection teaching, Randall and Lenni watched the nurse demonstrate use of the syringes. The next morning Randall shook Lenni awake. He was teaching an early class this quarter and needed to leave. They stood in the chill blue light as he fumbled for the light switch and a syringe.

Lenni closed her eyes and tensed. In and out near her bellybutton, she felt the tiny needle shooting Dilute Lupron and Follistim into her system.

Randall tossed the syringe and relaxed. He was an academic after all, not a doctor. “Now I can tell you my dream. You and I were in the clinic with the doctors and the nurses and we were all dancing a hora.”

Lenni laughed, suddenly lighthearted.

The five injections a day created tiny pink pinpricks, which if drawn together in dot-to-dot style would have produced a squiggly smile across her abdomen.

Seven days later, Lenni’s suppression check proved good, estrogen levels appropriately low. Days away from possible egg retrieval.

For that visit, Lenni told Randall to stay at work, a premonition perhaps. She would phone him with the results.

The clinic nurse moved the intracavity transducer up inside Lenni’s vagina and adjacent to her ovaries. The follicles were not growing as they should, the nurse said. Only one was potentially harvestable, not nearly large enough. The doctor would not take a chance, at Lenni’s age, on one chromosomally fragile egg.

Lenni tried to quiet her despair. “Knowing what you know, what would be your advice?” she asked the nurse.

“I can’t see going forward with this.”

Lenni and the nurse looked at the computer monitor and the listless numbers the transducer had registered. They did not look at each other. Should Randall be part of this decision? It really had been her project from the beginning.

“We stop.” Lenni sighed, unsuccessful in stopping her tears. The nurse turned away to clean the transducer. It seemed a long time before she turned back around, her nostrils a telltale pink.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “I’m about the same age as you. I never had kids. It’s probably why I ended up in this field.”

“Would you consider using a donor egg?” the nurse continued, turning the pages of Lenni’s chart, looking everywhere except at Lenni. “I believe everything else is in your favor for an attempt with a donor egg.”

“No.” Lenni inhaled. She wondered if she should call Randall now or wait until she got home.

“I could end up raising somebody else’s problems,” Lenni murmured.

The nurse nodded and left the room.

Lenni reached for a tissue in the subdued light of the examination room. Disappointment hurts. Infertility hurts. Rejection hurts. Lenni was certain searing loss in suburban twenty-first century Bellevue, Washington felt no different than it did two hundred years ago to a Ukrainian man of faith upon hearing of his young son’s death. She had memorized Rabbi Nachman’s entire prayer.

She drove home, staring vacantly. Lake Washington’s gray waters merged with the overcast skies. She wandered into the backyard and knelt down in her greenhouse. The ground was cold and bare. The tools, seed packets and pots stashed away. She picked absently at a weed. The kids were not home from school yet. Weary, she closed her eyes, lay down and wept into the ungiving ground. Rabbi Nachman’s words swirled through her brain.

And may all the foliage in the field

(all the grasses, trees and plants)

May they all awake at my coming

To send the powers of their life

Into the words of my prayer.

“Hey. I’m hungry. Will you make me some pasta?”

She rolled over. Shane stood in the greenhouse doorway. He seemed unsurprised that she was lying on the ground.

“I must have fallen asleep,” she mumbled, getting creakily to her knees, a little dizzy, a little stiff, mouth sour. 

She followed Shane into the kitchen.

“I’m a little sad right now,” she ventured.

“Use the big pot,” Shane said. “My father always uses the big pot.”

“I could use a hug, Shane.”

“Oh?” He looked stumped.

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to hug myself.” Lenni wrapped her arms around her midriff. Shane snickered and stayed put. She turned to the cupboard and pulled down the desired pot.

   *    *

Crisp fall turned into driving, chilly rain. One dark morning Lenni sensed a strange new weight in the big bed. Little feet curled around her calves like pea vine tendrils. Too small for Julie. She slowly registered the peculiar smell of boy. She opened her eyes wide. The discovery was hers to savor. Pillow over his head, Randall slept, unaware.

Had it been a nightmare? Had he woken up cold? Lenni looked over the small head, made visible by a feeble night light, to the slender volume on her night table. Next to the book lay her pile of small, crumpled papers on which she had written to Rabbi Nachman, a one-sided correspondence with a man dead these 200 years. The last lines of Rabbi Nachman’s petition formed in her mind.

May my prayer and speech

Be made whole

Through the life and spirit of all growing things

Which are made as one

By their transcendent


She exhaled, long and slow, and listened to Shane’s rhythmic breathing, a sound as numinous as any exalted words from a flawed world.


Wendy Marcus wrote for the Vancouver Columbian and Seattle Times before founding The Mazeltones, the Northwest’s first klazmer revival band, in 1983. Marcus is music director at Temple Beth Am in Seattle. Her debut short story collection, Polyglot: Stories from the West’s wet edge, is due out Spring 2009 from Beth Am Press.

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