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Quality Time

Denise was headed for Sacramento on Monday. Once Rightway Air put hand dryers into the wash rooms on interstate highways throughout the west, negotiations for its takeover quickly reached critical mass.

"You'll have to take Cordelia to Water Sprites this Thursday. Six was the only time I could work in a fitting, and I need that suit for Sacramento," Denise told Bradley.

"You know I have a regular court at six on Thursday, and Water Sprites is supposed to be Cordelia's quality time with you," he said. He played squash indifferently, and he hated the game, but his weight demanded the effort.

He protested Denise's priorities in Couples' Group that week, and Group pointed out that no one could always give a four year old quality time on the same days and hours, like piano lessons. By then Denise had arranged for the cleaning person's niece to take Cordelia to Water Sprites.

Cordelia's injured foot on Tuesday was serious enough for the headmistress to summon Bradley from important foreign loan discussions.

"I'll get back to you in five minutes," Bradley said, anxious about the available options in Denise's health insurance and his own. He did not call Denise in Sacramento, but he did call his mother. At once she volunteered to give up her bridge game and come in from Forest Hills.

A surgeon shook his head and sighed. Merely stitching the foot would probably leave Cordelia with a limp. Her best hope was a new operation he had read about but never attempted. "Could improve her chances...or not," he said without a smile.

"You have to clear it with your precious wife. If it turns out Corey's a cripple for life, whose fault will that be?" his mother said. Mrs. Meier had strong opinions which erupted without encouragement.

"Denise'll only tell me to get a second opinion, and Dr.Carver claims he has to operate right away, that is if he's going to try the new method. He's put me in a bind," Bradley said.

"Maybe I'm ignorant, but seems to me this young doctor should tell you more about Corey's chances. How can you decide so fast, and by yourself?. Against that school of Corey's, I think we have a case. Denny should know," said Mrs.Meier.

"Mother, as I've told you several times, nursery schools make you sign a release before they'll even register your child," said Bradley.

Standing in the Lysol-smelling corridor, trying to reach Sacramento on a telephone not equipped to accept cards, Bradley's mind wandered back to the happy time when he and Denise used to discuss having a child, agreeing to raise her together and strategize together if or when child-centered problems became urgent. She could hardly object to his wanting her input on the Dr.Carver issue.

"How much of a limp without the operation?" Denise asked at once. Because of the time difference, Bradley had caught her in her hotel room getting ready for a breakfast appointment. She sounded calm, if hurried. Were their circumstances reversed, she would seek his input even at the cost of distracting him from important professional concerns.

"Carver can't tell exactly. Because she's young and healthy, he doesn't think she'd have to use a cane or anything," Bradley said.

"But probably bad enough to ruin her tennis...and gymnastics might be out altogether. Is this Carver a reliable man?"

"Top orthopedist here. Big in sports medicine. Ran the Boston last year."

"Sounds cutting-edge. I'd say go for it. Give me an update tonight at seven, my time. I'll be here dressing for dinner."

"Right," said Bradley, ringing off. He glanced at his Rolex. Eleven-fifteen. He might just make his meeting at one. As he went in search of Dr.Carver, he felt in control again.

The sight of Cordelia, her foot separated from her wholeness by a yawning bloody gash, had given Bradley a brief sense of total inadequacy. Now, as he waited for Dr.Carver to return to the nurses' station, he asked himself hard questions: Could such a moment distort his later relations with his daughter? Would she ever seem as beautiful to him again?

That evening Denise wouldn't have time to discuss this personal trauma. She'd want only accurate answers to questions bound to occur to her in the course of the day, and he went over the accident itself in his mind:

Some boy, summarily expelled, had been giving Cordelia a ride on one of the media carts the teachers used to push electronic equipment from room to room. Half way down the hall, Cordelia spotted the headmistress and jumped off the cart. The brake over one of the wheels, sharp, and sticking out in its "up" position, cut right through her ankle, severing her Achilles tendon. Riding the carts was strictly forbidden, according to the headmistress. Cordelia's intelligent respect for the law should have prevented such misbehavior. He only hoped he could tell Denise that Carver had been able to repair the damage the child had almost willfully inflicted on herself.

At about three, Mrs.Meier called Bradley away from his meeting. "This fourteen year old doctor of yours says the operation was a `slam-dunk' --whatever that is. It helped that the tendon had been cut neat as you please, and I've never seen anyone as proud of himself as this doctor. `Never mind all that. Will she walk okay?' I say to him, and he says he can't give guarantees about anything like that."

"In the meantime, they put the poor little sweetheart in a cast up to her hip. Such a cast for a cut in the ankle. I got her a color TV, but the hospital doesn't have cable, and she keeps asking when you're coming. She wants her mother most of all," said Mrs.Meier.

"I have a meeting at six I can't miss, but I should be at the hospital by seven-thirty or eight," said Bradley without apology. Children should not expect instant gratification.

"First things first, I'm sure, but visiting hours end at eight-thirty. And the baby wants to know when that mother of hers is coming."

"Tell her Mama will be back Thursday as planned, and with a big surprise." When Bradley talked to Denise, he would suggest bringing home something like a portable computer, something interesting but capable of keeping Cordelia quiet while she mended.

"A child with a cast up to her hip needs a mother, but I suppose that's none of my business. Just you get here no later than eight." Mrs.Meier did not understand young people nowadays.

* * *

On Thursday, having completed the Rightway coup, and having landed at La Guardia on schedule, Denise took the time to go first to the hospital to present Cordelia with the enormous Stieff polar bear she had bought at a shop in her hotel. For a child in a hip cast, the Stieff seemed to Denise more appropriate and elegant than a portable computer. Cordelia understood computers remarkably well for her age, and Sacramento did boast many computer shops, but Denise had had no opportunity to sort them out, and every time she stepped on the elevator, the bear had charmed her.

The bear frightened Cordelia, but she flung eager arms around her mother, and Denise repressed an automatic remark about messing her hair.

"Silly thing to lug all the way from California. The child'll want to climb on it, and then what?" Mrs.Meier thought.

"You must be tired. Why don't you take a break?" Denise said to her. Mrs.Meier admitted to no fatigue, but she went to the coffee shop without a major struggle. Mrs.Meier, by mid-afternoon, admitted to herself how much she needed a cigarette.

Denise turned the next half hour into quality time. Her absence during the recent crisis must not become grounds for a grudge. Denise quickly taught Cordelia to love the Stieff, and she brought out an enchanting little bed jacket she just "happened" to find in her briefcase, followed by some new and amusing flash cards, a small box of Godiva chocolates, two small Smirnoff bottles from the plane to add to Cordelia's collection, and two unusual cocktail mixers. Cordelia thought she liked the chocolates best, but said with a smile, "Everything you brought me's neat."

With gentle finesse, Denise explained the actual meaning of "neat," and Cordelia undertook to remember. Then she shyly asked if she could hug the Stieff. Would it bite? Assured it would not, she struggled to reduce its enormity with hugs and joined her mother's laughter when she her small arms would not go around it. After Denise left, Mrs. Meier discovered that the excitement had left the patient with a slight fever.

During Cordelia's stay in the hospital, Denise gave her daily quality time. While her colleagues thought her on her usual lunch-time run, she sacrificed this daily period of relaxation to parental demand, took a taxi across town, and delighted Cordelia by arriving in brightly colored running costumes. Mrs.Meier continued to spend long hours at the hospital, although when Denise appeared, sometime between one and two, she went down to the coffee shop for some food and a smoke. She often asked how Denise got along all day on yogurt.

After Cordelia returned home, with a private nurse, Denise went on giving her that troublesome midday quality time, dashing all the way down to their gentrified SoHo loft, to find Mrs.Meier and Cordelia watching insipid programs on television and munching heavy food like hamburgers or potroast sandwiches--bad for the child's figure when she was getting so little exercise. When the doctor replaced Cordelia's hip cast with one coming only to her knee, and put her on crutches, Denise immediately assured Mrs.Meier she could now manage nicely without her.

"When they can manage, I don't barge into people's houses without an invitation," Mrs. Meier said.

"Thank you very much for your great help. I hope soon, I'll be well enough to come out to see you," Cordelia said.

* * *

Cordelia enjoyed learning to use her crutches. When finally allowed to go back to school, she hoped still to have them.

"Dr.Carver won't let you start school again until you can do without them," Bradley told her at dinner. The dinner-topic that night was gracefully returning to old scenes. A real effort by Cordelia had her already walking on one crutch.

"All the kids will wanta see them," Cordelia said. Bradley and Denise looked at each other. This small protest, the first since the accident, confirmed how much better she felt.

"There is no such word as `wanta,'" Denise said. She said it with her hard-edged smile to let Cordelia know she meant business.

"Want-to, then," said Cordelia.

"One day, you can bring them for show-and-tell. You use them well enough to give the other children a model, in case they ever have an accident and need them," said Denise with a smile more intended for a child.

"You might make a little ballet of your handling them," said Bradley. He sometimes had good ideas, Denise acknowledged to herself.

"That'll be great," said Cordelia noncommitally.

The private nurse became unnecessary, but Cordelia started insisting on going out, and Mrs.Harrow, her regular sitter, refused to accommodate her as long as she was on crutches.

"Not with my back, up and down those stairs," said Mrs.Harrow.

"I won't know if I can really handle my crutches until I try them outside," Cordelia said, smelling spring in the air.

To end the argument, Denise struck a bargain with her daughter: If Cordelia would promise faithfully not to pester Mrs.Harrow, she promised to take her out when she came at lunch time. Clutching that promise, Cordelia played quiet games with her flash cards or read all morning. Mrs.Harrow grew content.

Denise soon grew less content. Hauling the child down the stairs took about ten minutes, and hauling her back up took more like fifteen. The fifteen minutes or so left for their walk did not even get them to the shops, with Cordelia so slow. The whole situation was too exhausting and irritating. Bradley simply had to take half the lunch hours.

He granted his wife's point, but on Wall Street, everyone lunched at noon, and Cordelia wouldn't be eager for her walk so early.

"Take your lunch later. Create a new trend," Denise said.

"Decent idea, but I can't start tomorrow. I have an important and long-standing luncheon engagement."

"I need a break right away, and you don't want a scenario of what will happen if I don't get it tomorrow."

"Can't Cordelia do without a walk one day?"

"Sure, but if both of us stay away, she'll get after Mrs.Harrow, and the old darling will quit."

"I'll bet my mother would come."

"We're not starting that again, and your mother isn't strong enough to supervise Cordelia on those stairs.

"I'll try to touch base with Hazzard tonight, but those people with the Fed have a way of hiding."

"Leave a message with his machine. Tomorrow has to be my day off."

Bradley did manage to reach Hazzard and postpone their appointment. He arranged to be home at noon, but held up by an urgent call from Rio, he did not get back to SoHo until twelve-thirty.

Cordelia, by then, had been dead several hours.

No one's fault. No one could have predicted new disobedience on Cordelia's part once Denise and Bradley had brought her to understand how her earlier misbehavior had caused everyone such worry and inconvenience. But while Mrs.Harrow fixed Cordelia's morning snack, the child tried to navigate the stairs by herself and plunged to the bottom. In the kitchen, Mrs.Harrow heard a scream, and she ran out to find Cordelia dead at the foot of the stairs, her neck broken, her skull bashed in on the concrete floor.

With what the newspapers called great presence of mind, Mrs.Harrow dragged herself back upstairs and made the appropriate telephone calls. Unable to reach either Bradley or Denise, she did get a response from Dr.Carver's office, and it set the right wheels in motion.

The event was a terrible shock for a woman of her age, and two months later, she still kept to her bed, according to her son, an attorney with a small firm in Astoria. He sent Denise and Bradley a letter politely requesting compensation. Bradley wanted to settle.

"That Astoria joker is just making noise. Any judge would throw him out of court," Denise said.

She saw Bradley's softness about Mrs. Harrow arising from his guilt about arriving home late the day Cordelia died. Even if on time, he could not have saved her, she explained more than once. Remorse about Mrs.Harrow was nonsense. He should spend his effort placating Mrs.Meier, whose hysterics never ended. Soothing her had to be entirely his responsibility.

No one was to blame for Cordelia's death...except the child herself.

Why an intelligent, cooperative, serious child would take an expressly forbidden risk, Denise could not imagine. Bradley wasted therapy sessions parading his guilt, but that "why?" kept nagging her. In private therapy, she asked it over and over.

* * *

"You're only thirty-four. Maybe you should have another child. You'd feel better. Also Bradley," her therapist suggested after a year had passed.

"Bradley's fine. That Astoria idiot didn't sue, and Mrs. Meier's pretty much off his back. Now she's started in about another baby. The two of you should get together," said Denise.

Dr. Rosen gave her his professional smile. "From what you tell me of your mother-in-law, she’s no ally of mine. But a new baby could help, and this time you wouldn't make the same mistakes." He rose, to indicate the end of the session.

"I suppose not," said Denise, rising with him.

She thought as she walked to the elevator, “That man's a complete ass. I'll have to find a new therapist."

She had made no mistakes with Cordelia. The best authorities had recommended precisely the tenderness, tact, and consideration she had given the child. This careful nurturing had made Cordelia beautiful, brilliant, thoughtful, a sensational swimmer and a remarkable gymnast. Already she had been reading on a sixth grade level.

But then why?

Why would Cordelia ask some grubby scholarship boy to push her down the hall on a media cart? When she knew the school forbade such rides.

Why would she try to get down the stairs on her own, as if she were a slum child who had to do for herself?


So much Cordelia had kept secret, Denise suddenly realized. No one ever knew the inside of anyone else, except shrinks and that was their job, but children were supposed to open themselves to their mother. After all Denise's quality time with Cordelia, the child's private reality had remained as distant as a Velasquez infanta. The books had promised better results from such serious effort.

Were the authorities wrong? Was such a distance inevitable?

Raising nine children, with little or no quality time for any of them, her mother had known everything that mattered about all of them. In Billings, Montana Denise and her siblings had had few options--fewer than Cordelia had already learned to discriminate among--but with such a crowd, and no expert help, how had her mother seen into each of their hearts?

"You'll never be happy until you go to New York, and it's time you went," her mother had said one cold February day when the snow heaped around the house so deeply the front door refused to open. She handed over, with no more ado, the cookie jar money, saved for years for a dream trip to Hawaii.

And this mother never even went to college. Nor was she particularly intelligent. What was her trick? “It has to be a trick,” Denise thought. She prided herself on never using tricks. That Cordelia might try out the stairs by herself had never occurred to her. She confessed all this to her inner judges, digging her sharp heel into the carpet by the elevator. For all her effort, she deserved something better than a bad shock. She deserved a grateful, obedient child who adored her.

Her authorities had misled her. That must be it. Bradley had dug up most of them. Maybe colleagues of his had used those books with fair success, but her daughter had been superior to those clods and had required special insights. Bradley should have realized that.

And she should not have become so busy she left important choices to a dullard like Bradley. Her perfectly shaped nail pounded against the elevator button.

If she ever decided to conceive again, Bradley would have to go. That much was pellucidly clear to her. He had no originality of mind, and his mother had no mind at all. Another maternity-wing session with Mrs. Meier would end in murder, as well as setting up a wall between the baby and her.

Either Kent or Simon could fill Bradley's role nicely. Either would jump at the chance. Neither had family in town, and both were so eager for fatherhood, they would not make strict demands on her. Neither had a weight problem.

Choosing the father would be easier than giving the child a proper start. Denise decided not even to begin the project until she could find authorities who would tell her how to reach inside a superior young heart and possess it. Someone could tell her how to keep the new child from hiding anything that mattered. When Denise gave quality time to Felicity--possibly Stephanie--she would penetrate right to her soul.

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