by Robert Osborne
Martin, the neighborhood black cat, was originally named Sambo. Nelson knows this because some of the younger kids still call the cat by that name. They yell in the street under a late March sun. If Nelson is around inspecting his gutters, or scouting out locations on his property for the new garden he would like to plant, then the older kids correct their siblings. “His name is Martin.” They glance sheepishly at Nelson and offer an apologetic smile. They walk away from him until they reach some invisible event horizon and then breakout laughing.
“Martin,” Nelson calls to the cat, who arches his back and swishes his tail, his purr audible long before he reaches the hand Nelson extends.
“That’s right,” Nelson says. “I’m your people.”
One day Nelson comes home to find his wife, Dahlia, and her sister Betty, sitting at the kitchen table. Colorful brochures depicting happy children and benevolent adults are spread across the surface.
“Where is Harris?” he asks. Dahlia tells him Harris is out playing ball with his friends at the rec center. The proximity to basketball courts, an Olympic size pool, tennis courts, and a movie theater is one reason they moved into this house two months ago. The neighborhood also has four coffee shops, a fish store, a cheese shop, and two wine bars, both with Edison bulbs hanging from their ceilings.
Betty is eyeing the brochures, her body cocked away from the jumble of smiling children, as if they are exerting some kind of force. She runs her hand through the length of her blonde hair and lets out a long sigh.
“They’ve decided to take the plunge,” Dahlia says.
“It was too much.”
By “too much” Betty means that the expense was too much, the fighting was too much, the planned sex was too much, the heartbreak was too much. For Nelson and Dahlia, it had been easy. One try and one kid born 16 years ago.
Nelson goes to the fridge and pulls out a beer. It feels right that he has a drink on a Saturday afternoon in the first house he’s ever owned.
“Do you know how your parents decided?” Betty asks him.
“I think they just went to the local agency,” Nelson says with a shrug. “My sense is that it was like going to animal rescue and picking out the one you like.”
Nelson’s sister was that choice. He thinks of her long limbs, tight smile, and distrustful eyes.
“It couldn’t have been that easy,” Dahlia says.
Nelson smiles tolerantly at his wife, shrugs, and takes a sip of his beer. She is probably right, but he imagines in the late 70s in the Bronx, it may have been just exactly like this. He pictures rows and rows of Black infants in their cribs, dense tufts of hair on their heads, an earth palette of a thousand shades.
“We’re thinking about Korea or maybe Ukraine,” Betty says. “So many needy babies, it’s hard to decide.”
“Those are long trips,” Nelson offers. “Different cultures. A lot of expense.”
“What choice do we have?” Betty asks. “There’s simply no easy way to get a baby here.”
Nelson and Dahlia had accepted several drink invitations from their neighbors since they moved in. The offers seemed driven partly out of neighborliness and partly out of the novelty they represent. They’re used to this. They know they make a striking couple with Dahlia’s lanky, Nordic beauty and Nelson’s dark, roped physique.
“Did you play ball? You guys go to school together?” Rich Kelso had asked while shaking a margarita for both of them. The panels in Rich’s den and even the bar cart were made from cherry wood. The lit fireplace suggested an intimacy that Nelson hadn’t felt. Several generations of Kelso’s lined the walls and mantles, dignified and righteous.
“Nah, just recreationally. We met in grad school, in the library.”
Nelson took satisfaction in telling that little white lie. They had met in grad school, but it was at a bar, Dahlia grinning at him as she threw back a shot. She had just finished her last exam. Nelson still had a year to go.
“Wow, that’s something. You two sure look like the homecoming king and queen together.”
“Thanks,” Dahlia said. She gave Nelson a cautionary glance, while he raised his glass to her in a toast.
Drinks with the Grahams a week earlier had put her on edge. Missy Graham asked, “How did you find this one? So handsome.” Their relationship always required some level of explanation.
“Dahlia used to come down to the hood to watch some of us play ball,” Nelson said with a wink.
“Yeah, I caught her eye.”
Dahlia’s own eyes flashed with anger and warning, but she smiled and said, “He did.”
Later that night when they were getting ready for bed she said, “You give anyone else that bullshit answer again I’m going to kick your ass.”
“I just give the people what they want.”
But Rich Kelso had wisely dropped the subject and handed them both their margaritas in sweating tumblers. They talked about grad school, the neighborhood, their kids. Rich and his wife Mary had both gone to Ivy League schools, and they were only too happy to discover they had that in common.
Towards the end of the evening, Mary looked pensive and wrung her hands. She glanced at Rich, who nodded to her in encouragement.
“You two are so lovely, and we just wanted to say we’re sorry about the cat. We should have known better. We didn’t give the name any thought, but we should have. We’re all sorry. Everyone in the neighborhood. We meant no offense.”
Nelson looked them both in the eye and with a tight smile, uttered the most important phrase you need to know if you are a Black person trying to get by in certain social situations.
After giving Harris his driving lesson, father and son sit in the driveway. Martin the cat stalks something on the neighbor’s lawn, his tail twitching, his ears just visible above grass that needs to be mowed. Nelson’s front yard sports a big chestnut, its white flowers blushed at their centers, rain petals down onto the grass. He likes that he has trees. The big maple that hovers over the house like a sentinel, the birch that edge his property, the jumble of conifers that cluster just off to the side of his porch. He had none of this growing up and now it is all his. He likes that his Saturdays are taken up by raking, mowing, weeding, and watering. He’s found a spot for a garden in the back, a patch free from the shadows of his house, of his many trees. A sprinkling of yellow dandelions and sunflowers dot the lawn. He knows he’ll enjoy the sweat and the dust and the small bites because it’s his and he has earned it.
“When can I take my road test?” Harris asks. His hair, a detonation of loose curls, pushes against the roof of the car. By the magic of genetics, its chestnut coloring sports blonde highlights. He is lanky, with big hands and feet that he is still growing into.
“That’s not really an answer, Dad.”
“It’s the answer I have.”
Harris sighs. Nelson concedes in his mind that Harris is ready to take the test. He’s a conscientious driver, careful but decisive. He takes driving as seriously as he takes everything else in his life, his school work, his art, basketball. Nelson just isn’t ready to let him out there. He doesn’t know this town yet, the risks that Harris might face. The driving test is inevitable, but Nelson will give himself time to get used to the idea of his son in the world.
“Well, when can we have another driving lesson?”
“Tomorrow. Today I’m going to teach you how to mow a lawn.”
Martin the cat has caught something. He holds it in his mouth, runs up to the porch and drops it. He turns and stares at Nelson, confident and comfortable in his own right to be here.
Usually Dahlia beats Nelson to bed. She likes to read or flip through social media on her phone, the covers pulled up to her chest. Nelson enjoys the solitariness of remaining in the living room, watching the news or repeats of Law & Order. Harris is invariably in his room, presumably playing video games or texting with his friends.
On this evening, when Nelson finally comes to bed, Dahlia is still awake, flipping through a magazine. The moon shines through their second-story window, crisscrossed by the shadows thrown by the tallest of their trees. Nelson starts to undress and Dahlia puts down the magazine.
“I talked to Betty today,” Dahlia says. “Those two are feeling just as much pressure as when they were going through IVF. They got into a big fight.”
“Where they should adopt from. A boy or a girl. Those kinds of things.”
“Why is that such a difficult decision? A kid is a kid is a kid.”
“Except a kid isn’t a kid isn’t a kid. Right?”
Dahlia is quiet, thoughtful. Nelson slides into bed beside her.
“Or should I say, some categories of kids are better than others.”
“I know what you’re saying. I don’t disagree. But they have to be willing to take on the responsibility. It’s America. This country has a long way to go.”
“If you think that’s all it is,” says Nelson. “But what makes them sure it will be so much easier having a kid from Korea or somewhere?”
Dahlia says nothing, and he doesn’t push her. She has a black kid just on the other side of the wall. He’s not going to lecture her. But he’s also not in the mood to pretend things are any different than they are.
“Black babies in foster care aren’t a bunch of crack babies and every Asian kid isn’t going to become a doctor.”
“I don’t think that’s what they are thinking.”
Nelson snorts, kisses his wife on the cheek, and turns out the lamp by the side of the bed.
To have children, no matter their origin, is to embrace fragility, to engage in a futile effort to impose control on the uncontrollable. The stories started as Harris became an adolescent. In sixth grade, two young women from his class made a pact and jumped from their apartment window, plunging 50 feet to the ground.
In seventh grade, a family friend’s young daughter was raped by some older teenagers outside of the club she had managed to get herself admitted into. In eighth grade, it was numerous tales revolving around drugs and sex so kinky that Nelson couldn’t look the storytellers in the eye while hearing about it.
And then there is the mental illness, the bullying, the mean girls, the mean boys. When Nelson looks at Harris, it is harder and harder not to see the potential tragedy that he embodies. What seeds have he and Dahlia planted that are ready to reveal themselves from the deep compost of their lives, sprouts that might take hold until they are everything? What might explode like a mushroom, suddenly there, pale and deadly?
When Harris was born, he seemed like the next logical step in their lives. Now he feels like an act of courage. These thoughts are both rational and irrational. Every parent has them, and every parent of a young black man has them more.
Nelson has finally agreed to the road test. It is scheduled for the next week. This is the beginning. The beginning of freedom. The beginning of colliding with some unknown fate out in the world.
“We’re seriously thinking about Korea,” Betty informs Nelson and Dahlia. They are sitting on the back deck, the new Spring finally yielding weather suitable for outdoor grilling and drinks. Sun filters through the trees and clouds of gnats twirl in the columns of light. Nelson feels languorous on his Adirondack chair, a beer resting on the broad armrest. The colors of his yard have relented and now all is green in its many shades. He can see his neighbor’s house across the yard and their in-ground pool. A patch of landscaped flowers and bushes hug it, a mottled plane tree shading it from the sun.
“That’s wonderful,” says Dahlia.
“Why Korea?” Nelson asks.
“Well, we thought long and hard about Eastern Europe,” Bryan offers. He’s sitting next to Nelson, also sprawled out on an Adirondack chair, a gin and tonic in his hand raining condensation. “Because it would beg fewer questions, you know? But then we thought, why do we have to explain ourselves? I just trust the Korean adoption system. Plus, Asian adoptions are so common I don’t think anyone will think it’s strange.”
“How long do you have to wait?” Dahlia asks. She edges over to Nelson and then sits in his lap. He rubs her back. Although she is a tall person, he finds the weight of her both comforting and comfortable. Wisps of her hair tickle his nose.
“It could be up to a year,” Betty answers. “And then it’s like, you just have to go at a moment’s notice.”
“How old will the baby be when you get it?” This is Nelson again. Dahlia shifts her weight on his lap, her back half obscuring his face. He makes a point of relaxing his muscles. He smiles. He takes a sip of his beer.
“Well, anywhere from one to two years old. That’s the tough part. But it’s worth the wait to be parents. We’ve been waiting so long.”
“Why not get one from around here?” Nelson asks. “You know, American.”
Neither Betty nor Bryan answer immediately.
“It’s not so easy here, either,” Bryan finally says. “I mean, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, a lot of waiting.”
“Just asking,” Nelson says mildly.
“The birth parents have a lot of rights, here.” Bryan continues defensively.
He can hear Harris returning with the car, having found one of the seniors on his team to sit in the passenger seat so he can use his learner permit. The sound of the car door slamming makes Nelson relax more, happy that he knows where Harris is. Having children is to face risk every single day. You just can’t know, and that is the cold, hard reality of it. A friend’s kid was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. Another had slashed her wrists and was saved only because the housekeeper had returned to the house to retrieve a forgotten cell phone. So, who knew? Who was to say what was a good or bad decision when it came to kids? Who had any idea how it would all turn out in the end?
Nelson throws a pile of printed papers down on the kitchen table. Betty, drinking coffee from a ceramic mug, looks pained and startled. She squints from an arrow of sunlight that has made it between the curtains. Dahlia is on the phone in the living room, wrestling with their insurance company.
“Thanks, Nelson. What is this?”
“It’s some adoption information.”
Nelson spent the previous evening doing research. Black babies are easier to adopt than white babies and about half the cost of Korean babies or white babies. But he already knew this, or at least understood it in principle.
Dahlia shuffles through the papers. She keeps her face composed. Nelson sits down at the kitchen table, leans slightly back in his chair.
“I’ll show these to Bryan,” Betty offers. She cocks her head at Nelson. “I wonder if we’d be qualified. You know? I mean, Bryan and I. It’s so beyond our experience except for you and Harris. I’m not proud of that fact, but it is.”
“And a Korean baby?”
“It’s different,” she says.
“Yes, it’s different,” he agrees.
“But we’ll think about it. Really.”
“Betty told me about your little stunt,” Dahlia says. They are watching TV, the sun setting in a haze of orange and purple that halos the bushes just outside their window. They sip white wine, their glasses winking at them in the waning light. The house is quiet, Harris out with his friends somewhere and not due home for another hour or two.
“It wasn’t a stunt.”
“Then what was it?”
“I just gave them some information. What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s their life. Not ours.”
“And again, what’s wrong with what I did?”
Dahlia sighs. She looks Nelson in the eye.
“Okay, there is nothing wrong with what you did, but you’re calling them out. Yes, you can do it, but are your sister and brother-in-law the ones you want to pick this particular fight with?”
Nelson has always appreciated Dahlia’s willingness to look a situation in the eye and not run from it. He smiles at his wife, happy to see her return it.
“I’ve made my point,” he says. “I just wanted them to consider it. Or at least be honest about why they weren’t considering it.”
“Mission accomplished. Betty has been on the phone with me three times today wringing her hands.”
“Sorry,” he says.
“I worry about, Harris. Don’t you? And it’s not like Asians have it so easy, either.”
He lies awake that night, at first tossing and turning, and then staring up at the ceiling listening to the gentle snoring of his wife. Harris’ road test is the next day. Like those Black babies in their foster care homes, Harris will get no benefit of the doubt. The world has its understandings, and they are as unchangeable as the coming dawn.
The day of Harris’ road test is grey, the air misting and chilly, a throw-back to a month earlier. Harris eats his breakfast quickly, claps his father on the back.
“I’ll see you right after school,” he says as he runs out the door to the bus that is just pulling up to the curb across from the house. The image of his son stepping through the doors and the yellow bus pulling away is an image that he thought about before they bought this house, before he was even married. About how wonderful such a prosaic existence would be.
Dahlia walks into the kitchen in her navy robe, her hair a waterfall of loose curls down onto her shoulders, skin pink from her shower. Nelson watches her. How much of his own needs, his own ideas for a successful life had depended on having this statuesque blonde for his wife?
“Betty texted me. Korea it is. They are filing the paperwork today.”
“You can’t talk to them about it anymore. They’ve made their choice.”
Nelson nods again. We all make our choices. Some have more choices than others. He looks around his kitchen, at the coffeemaker, his large refrigerator, at the bank and broker account statements piled on the island in the middle of the room. He has more choices than most. He understands this. Later, he will take his son for his road test. And one day not so long from now he will drop him off at college. And not so long after that, he’ll be gone.
Martin the cat is staring through the screen door back at him, his gaze unwavering and pitiless, his expression as unreadable as the future.
Robert Osborne is a consultant to not-for-profit organizations. His fiction has appeared in The Dickinson Review and The Tulane Review. He is a well-known international speaker and workshop leader, focused on topics related to fundraising. Robert lives in New York City with his wife, son, and three cats.