Books

Get reading: read the first 2 chapters of Ask Again, Yes, summer’s biggest novel

Looking for your next beach read? We’ve got you covered with an extract from Ask Again, Yes, and an exclusive introduction from author Mary Beth Keane.

There’s nothing we love quite as much as a good book.

This summer, we’ve been spoiled for choice by new literary releases, but if you’re yet to find your newest beach read, let us steer you towards Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. A  gripping family drama, the story delves into themes of friendship, love, tragedy and forgiveness, and it had this writer abandoning all sleep for a weekend of feverishly turning pages to reach the conclusion (on that note, is there a word for the feeling of desolation that comes with finishing a really, really good book?)

You may also like

27 of the most comforting books to read if you’re feeling lonely

The novel is published in the UK today, and the story is already in development with the producers of Silver Linings Playbook and The Book of Mormon to be made into a film. Plus, Keane’s previous novel, Fever, is in development with BBC America (the production team behind that little known TV series, Killing Eve), and it will be written by, and star, Elisabeth Moss. Nice.

Fiona Shaw and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve
Fiona Shaw and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

Fancy giving Ask Again, Yes a read? We’ve got the first two chapters from the novel below, including an exclusive introduction written by none other than Mary Beth Keane herself. Don’t say we never spoil you…

Ask Again, Yes: an introduction from Mary Beth Keane

A few weeks ago, I attended a large backyard party at a friend’s house and on my way to check out the food offerings I met two of my friend’s college classmates, both male, both in their early 40s. Over the course of the conversation, it emerged that I’m a novelist with a new book out, and at the same time one asked, “Romance?” and the other said, “Oh! I’ll have to tell my wife”.

They seemed nice enough (I mean: who knows), but the part that amazed me was that I have this interaction so often that I could have predicted what they’d say, before they said it. Waiting in line at the ice cream shop, on the sidelines of baseball games, at cocktail parties. Nearly every time I meet an adult, presumably literate, male person, often a self-described “big reader”, there’s an assumption that whatever I’m doing is not for them. But why?

reading a book
"We read fiction and we are disarmed": Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes

Maybe in describing the book I use the words “domestic” or “love.” “Forgiveness” gets bandied about, too, and its soft center might feel feminine to some. But we all come from places. Whenever any of us wash a dish or sweep crumbs from a table we’re participating in a domestic scene. And love? I suppose depictions of love can too often veer toward maudlin. I don’t want to read anything syrupy, either. Or maybe there’s something about ME that makes them feel it’s too big a risk (for themselves, but, notably, never for their wives). Maybe I was wearing a sundress with an aggressive floral print that day.

Social media has been passing around the results of recent studies that show reading fiction increases a person’s capacity for empathy. I have no idea whether these were peer-reviewed studies, but I hearted them and shared them just like everyone else because I don’t need a study to know this is true. We read fiction to feel less alone, to learn some truth about ourselves, to access the inner lives of others. We read fiction and we are disarmed. And I would argue that the single thing the world needs most right now is a laying aside of arms.

Ask Again, Yes was the most difficult work I’ve ever done. How does one get a firm hold of themes as big as love, family, and forgiveness? By making them specific. By making them all of us: our habits, the things we wish for, the things we try for. Me, you, that neighbor you can barely stand, the actor you watch on TV, your sports hero: everyone hopes for something and we can identify with that hope and root for it even if it’s not something we want for ourselves. My hope is that all readers, male and female, find a small piece of themselves here. 

Ask Again, Yes: Prologue, July 1973

Francis Gleeson, tall and thin in his powder blue police-man’s uniform, stepped out of the sun and into the shadow of the stocky stone building that was the station house of the Forty-First Precinct. A pair of pantyhose had been hung to dry on a fourth floor fire escape near 167th, and while he waited for another rookie, a cop named Stanhope, Francis noted the perfect stillness of those gossamer legs, the delicate curve where the heel was meant to be. Another building had burned the night before and Francis figured it was now like so many others in the Four-One: nothing left but a hollowed-out shell and a blackened staircase within. The neighborhood kids had all watched it burn from the roofs and fire escapes where they’d dragged their mattresses on that first truly hot day in June. Now, from a block away, Francis could hear them begging the firemen to leave just one hydrant open.

He could imagine them hopping back and forth as the pavement grew hot again under their feet.

He looked at his watch and back at the station house door and wondered where Stanhope could be.

Eighty-eight degrees already and not even ten o’clock in the morning.

This was the great shock of America, winters that would cut the face off a person, summers that were as thick and as soggy as bogs. “You whine like a narrowback,” his uncle Patsy had said to him that morning. “The heat, the heat, the heat.” But Patsy pulled pints inside a cool pub all day. Francis would be walking a beat, dark rings under his arms within fifteen minutes.

“Where’s Stanhope?” Francis asked a pair of fellow rookies also heading out for patrol.

“Trouble with his locker, I think,” one said back.

Finally, after another whole minute ticked by, Brian Stanhope came bounding down the station house steps. He and Francis had met on the first day of academy, and it was by chance that they’d both ended up at the Four-One. In academy, they’d been in a tactics class together, and after a week or so Stanhope approached Francis as they were filing out the classroom door. “You’re Irish, right? Off the boat Irish, I mean?”

Francis said he was from the west, from Galway. And he’d taken a plane, but he didn’t say that part.

“I thought so. So’s my girlfriend. She’s from Dublin. So let me ask you something.”

To Francis, Dublin felt as far from Galway as New York did, but to a Yank, he supposed, it was all the same.

Francis braced for something more personal than he wanted to be asked. It was one of the first things he’d noticed about America, that everyone felt at ease asking each other any question that came into their minds. Where do you live, who do you live with, what’s your rent, what did you do last weekend? To Francis, who felt embarrassed lining up his groceries on the checkout belt of the Associated in Bay Ridge, it was all a little too much. “Big night,” the checkout clerk had commented last time he was there. A six-pack of Budweiser. A pair of potatoes. Deodorant.

Brian said that he’d noticed his girl didn’t hang around with any other Irish. She was only eighteen. You’d think she’d have come over with a friend or a cousin or something but she’d come alone. It seemed to him she could have at least found a bunch of Irish girls to live with. God knew they were all over the place. She was a nurse in training at Montefiore and lived in hospital housing with a colored girl, also a nurse. Was that the way it was for the Irish? Because he’d dated a Russian girl for a while and the only people she hung around with were other Russians.

“I’m Irish, too,” Stanhope said. “But back a ways.”

That was another thing about America. Everyone was Irish, but back a ways.

“Might be a sign of intelligence, keeping away from our lot,” Francis said with a straight face. It took Stanhope a minute.

***

At graduation, Mayor Lindsay stood at the podium and from his third row seat Francis thought about how strange it was to see in person a man he’d only ever seen on TV. Francis had been born in New York, was taken back to Ireland as an infant, and had returned just before his nineteenth birthday with ten American dollars and citizenship. His father’s brother, Patsy, had picked him up from JFK, taken Francis’s duffel from his hand and thrown it on the backseat. “Welcome home,” he’d said. The idea of this teeming, foreign place as home was mystifying. On his first full day in America, Patsy put him to work behind the bar at the pub he owned on Third Avenue and Eightieth Street in Bay Ridge. There was a framed shamrock over the door. The first time a woman came in and asked him for a beer, he’d taken out a highball glass and set it down in front of her. “What’s this?” she asked. “A half beer?” She looked down the row at the other people sitting at the bar, all men, all with pints in front of them.

He’d shown her the pint glass. “This is what you want?” he’d asked. “The full of it?” And understanding, finally, that he was new to the bar new to America, she’d leaned over to cup his face, to brush the hair off his forehead.

“That’s the one, sweetie,” she’d said.

One day, when Francis had been in New York for about a year, a pair of young cops came in. They had a sketch of someone they were looking for, wanted to know if anyone at the bar recognized him. They joked around with Patsy, with Francis, with each other. When they were leaving, Francis mustered up some of that American inquisitiveness. How hard was it to get on the cops? How was the pay? For a few seconds their faces were inscrutable. It was February; Francis was wearing an old cable sweater that had been Patsy’s, and felt shabby next to the officers in their pressed jackets, their caps that sat rightly atop their heads. Finally, the shorter of the two said that before becoming a cop he’d been working at his cousin’s car wash on Flushing Avenue. Even when it all went automated, the sprayers would get him and in the winters he’d end the day frozen through. It was too brutal. Plus it was a lot better telling girls he was a cop than telling them he worked a car wash.

The other young cop looked a little disgusted. He’d joined because his father was a cop. And two of his uncles. And his grandfather. It was in his blood.

Francis thought about it through that winter, paying more attention to the cops in the neighborhood, on the subways, moving barricades, on television. He went to the local station house to ask about the test, the timing, how it all worked and when. When Francis mentioned his plan to Uncle Patsy, Patsy said it was a sound idea, all he needed was twenty years and then he’d have his pension. Francis noticed that Patsy said “twenty years” as if it were nothing, a mere blink, though at that moment it was more than the length of Francis’s whole life. After twenty years, as long as he didn’t get killed, he could do something else if he wanted. He saw his life split up into blocks of twenty, and for the first time he wondered how many blocks he’d get. The best part was he’d still be young, Patsy said. He wished he’d thought of it when he was Francis’s age.

***

After graduation, his class had been split into groups to do field training in different parts of the city. He and thirty others, Brian Stanhope among them, were sent to Brownsville, and then to the Bronx, where the real job began. Francis was twenty-two by then. Brian was only twenty-one. Francis didn’t know Brian well, but it was comforting to look across the room at muster and see a familiar face. Nothing, so far, had happened the way they’d been told things would happen. The station house itself was the exact opposite of what Francis had imagined when he decided to apply to the police academy. The outside was bad enough - the façade chipped and peeling, covered in bird shit and crowned in barbed wire - but inside was worse. There wasn’t a surface in the place that wasn’t damp or sticky or peeling. The radiator in the muster room had broken in half and someone had shoved an old pan underneath to catch the drips. Plaster rained from the ceiling and landed on their desks, their heads, their paperwork. Thirty perps were pushed into holding cells meant for two or three. Instead of being paired with more seasoned partners, all the rookies were sent out with other rookies. “The blind leading the blind,” Sergeant Russell had joked, and promised it would only be for a little while. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Now, Gleeson and Stanhope walked away from the smoldering building and headed north. From the distance came the clang of yet another fire alarm. Both young patrolmen knew the boundaries of their precinct on a map, but neither of them had seen those boundaries in person yet. The patrol cars were assigned by seniority, and the eight-to-four tour was heavy with seniority. They could have taken the bus to the farthest edge and walked back, but Stanhope said he hated taking the bus in uniform, hated the flare-up of tension when he boarded through the back door and every face looked over to size him up.

“Well, then let’s walk,” Francis had suggested.

Now, with rivers of perspiration coursing down their backs, they made their way block after block, each man with stick, cuffs, radio, fire- arm, ammo, flashlight, gloves, pencil, pad, and keys swaying from his belt. Some blocks were nothing but rubble and burned-out cars, and they scanned for movement within the wreckage. A girl was throwing a tennis ball against the face of a building and catching it on the bounce. A pair of crutches lay across their path and Stanhope kicked them. Any building with even a partial wall left standing was covered in graffiti. Tag upon tag upon tag, the colorful loops and curves implied motion, suggested life, and taken together they looked almost violently bright against a backdrop that was mostly gray.

The eight-to-four tour was a gift, Francis knew. Unless there were warrants to be executed, there was a good chance all would be quiet until lunch. When they finally turned onto Southern Boulevard, they felt like travelers who’d crossed a desert, grateful to be on the other side. Where the side streets were nearly empty, ghost-like, the boulevard was busy with passing cars, a menswear store that sold suits in every color, a series of liquor stores, a card shop, a barber, a bar. In the distance, a patrol car flashed its lights at them in greeting and rolled on.

“My wife is expecting,” Stanhope said when neither of them had said anything for a while. “Due around Thanksgiving.”

“The Irish girl?” Francis asked. “You married her?” He tried to re- member: were they engaged back in academy when Stanhope had told him about her? He counted toward November—just four months away. “Yup,” Stanhope said. “Two weeks ago.” A city hall wedding. Dinner on Twelfth Street at a French place he’d read about in the paper; he’d had to point at his menu because he couldn’t pronounce anything. Anne had to change her outfit last minute because the dress she’d planned on wearing was already too tight.

“She wants a priest to marry us once the baby comes. We couldn’t find a parish that would do it quickly, even seeing her belly. Anne says maybe she’ll find a priest who can bless the wedding and baptize the baby on the same day. Down the road, I mean.”

“Married is married,” Francis said, and offered his hearty congratulations. He hoped Stanhope didn’t see that for a second there he’d been trying to do the math. He didn’t care, really, it was just a habit brought from home, a habit he’d lose, no doubt, the longer he stayed in America. People went to Mass in shorts and T-shirts here. Not long ago he’d seen a woman driving a taxi. People walked around Times Square in their knickers.

“You want to see her?” Stanhope asked, taking off his hat. There, tucked inside the lining, was a snapshot of a pretty blond woman with a long, slim neck. Next to it a Saint Michael prayer card. Also tucked in the lining was a photo of a younger Brian Stanhope with another guy.

“Who’s that?” Francis asked.

“My brother, George. That’s us at Shea.”

Francis had not thought to put any photos in his hat yet, though he, too, had a Saint Michael prayer card folded in his wallet. Francis had asked Lena Teobaldo to marry him on the same day he’d graduated from academy, and she’d said yes. Now he imagined that would be him soon, telling people there was a baby on the way. Lena was half-Polish, half-Italian, and sometimes when he watched her - searching for something in her bag, or peeling an apple with her knuckle guiding the blade - he felt a shiver of panic that he’d almost not met her. What if he hadn’t come to America? What if her parents hadn’t come to America? Where else but in America would a Polack and an Italian get together and make a girl like Lena? What if he hadn’t been at the pub the morning she came in to ask if her family could book the back room for a party? Her sister was going to college, she told him. She’d gotten a full scholarship, that’s how smart she was.

“That’ll be you, maybe, when you graduate from high school,” Francis had said, and she’d laughed, said she’d graduated the year before, that college was not in the cards for her but that was fine because she liked her job. She had a head of wild curls, brown shoulders above some strap- less thing she was wearing. She was in the data processing pool at Gen- eral Motors on Fifth Avenue, just a few floors above FAO Schwarz. He didn’t know what FAO Schwarz was. He’d only been in America for a few months.

“People keep asking me if we’re going to stay in the city,” Stanhope said. “We’re in Queens now, but the place is tiny.”

Francis shrugged. He didn’t know anything about the towns outside the city, but he didn’t see himself in an apartment for the rest of his life. He imagined land. A garden. Space to breathe. All Francis knew was after the wedding he and Lena would stay with her parents to save money.

“You ever heard of a town called Gillam?” Stanhope asked. “No.”

“No, me neither. But that guy Jaffe? I think he’s a sergeant? He said it’s only about twenty miles north of here and there are a lot of guys there on the job. He says the houses all have big lawns and kids deliver the newspapers from their bicycles just like in The Brady Bunch.”

“What’s it called again?” Francis asked. “Gillam,” Stanhope said.

“Gillam,” Francis repeated.

In another block, Stanhope said he was thirsty, that a beer wouldn’t be the worst idea. Francis pretended not to hear the suggestion. The patrolmen in Brownsville drank on the job sometimes but only if they were in squad cars, not out in the open. He wasn’t a coward but they’d only just started. If either of them got in trouble, neither of them had a hook.

“Wouldn’t mind one of them sodas with ice cream in it,” Francis said. When they walked into the diner, Francis felt the trapped heat waft- ing at him despite the door having been propped open with a pair of bricks. The elderly man behind the counter was wearing a paper hat that had gone yellow, a lopsided bow tie. A fat black fly swooped frantically near the man’s head as he looked back and forth between the policemen.

“The soda’s cold, buddy? The milk’s good?” Stanhope asked. His voice and the breadth of his shoulders filled the quiet, and Francis looked down at his shoes, then over at the plate glass, which was threaded with cracks, held together with tape. It was a good job, he told himself. An honorable job. There’d been rumors there wouldn’t even be a class of 1973 with the city slashing its budget, but his class had squeaked through.

Just then, their radios crackled to life. There’d been some morning banter, calls put out and answered, but this was different. Francis turned up the volume. There’d been a shot fired and a possible robbery in progress at a grocery store located at 801 Southern Boulevard. Francis looked at the door of the coffee shop: 803. The man behind the counter pointed to the wall, at whatever was on the other side. “Dominicans,” he said, and the word floated in the air, hovered there.

“I didn’t hear a shot. Did you?” Francis said. The dispatcher repeated the call. A tremor jumped from Francis’s throat to his groin, but he fumbled for his radio as he moved toward the door.

Francis in the lead, Stanhope right behind him, the two rookies unsnapped the holsters on their hips as they approached the door of the grocery. “Shouldn’t we wait?” Stanhope asked, but Francis kept moving forward past a pair of payphones, past a caged fan that stood beating the air. “Police!” he shouted as they stepped farther inside the store. If there’d been any customers there when the robbery was taking place, there was no sign of them now.

“Gleeson,” Stanhope said, nodding at the blood-sprayed cigarette cartons behind the single register up front. The pattern showed the vigor of someone’s heartbeat: blood that appeared more purple than red reaching as far as the water-stained ceiling, settling thickly on the rusted vent. Francis looked quickly to the floor behind the register, and then followed the grisly path down aisle three, until finally, lying in front of a broom closet, a man sprawled on his side, his face slack, an astonishing amount of blood in a growing pool beside him. While Stanhope called it in, Francis pressed two fingers to the soft hollow under the man’s jaw. He straightened the man’s arm and put the same two fingers to his wrist.

“It’s too hot for this,” Stanhope said as he frowned down at the body. He opened the fridge next to him, removed a bottle of beer, popped the cap off by striking it against the end of a shelf, and chugged it without taking a breath. Francis thought of the town Stanhope had mentioned, walking in his bare feet through cool, dew-damp grass. There was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, see if he liked it—the words he’d chosen when he told his uncle Patsy that he’d gotten into the police academy - because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are. One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic and next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.

As the dead man’s face turned ashen, Francis thought about how desperate the man looked, the way his neck was stretched and his chin pitched upward, like a drowning man craning for the surface of the water. It was only his second dead body. The first, a floater that had risen to the surface in April after a winter in New York Harbor, was not recognizable as a person, and perhaps for that reason it was barely real to him. The lieutenant who’d taken him along told him to get sick over the side of the boat if he wanted to, but Francis said he was fine. He thought of what the Christian Brothers had said about a body being merely a vessel, about the spirit being the pilot light of one’s self. That first body, a water-logged piece of meat hauled up, dripping, onto the boat’s deck, had parted with its soul long before Francis had laid eyes on it, but this one - bit by bit, Francis watched it depart. In the old country someone would have opened a window to let the man’s spirit fly out, but any souls let loose here in the South Bronx would be free only so far as they could bat around four walls until, exhausted, they wilted in the heat and were forgotten.

“Prop that door, will you?” Francis called. “I can barely breathe.”

Then, Francis heard something and froze. He placed a hand on his gun.

Stanhope looked at him, wide-eyed. There it was again, the whisper- soft sound of a sneaker on linoleum, listening to them as Francis listened back, three human hearts pounding in their cages, another lying still. “Step out with your hands up,” Francis called, and then, all at once, they saw him: a tall and gangly teenager in a white undershirt, white shorts, white sneakers, hiding in the narrow space between the refrigerated case and the wall.

***

An hour later Francis was holding the kid’s hands, rolling each finger in ink and then on the card, then four fingers together, then the thumb. First the left hand, and then the right, and then the left again, three cards total - local, state, federal. After the first card there was a rhythm to it, like an ancient dance: grasp, roll, release. The kid’s hands were warm but dry, and if he was nervous Francis couldn’t detect it. Stanhope was already writing up his report. The grocer had died well before the ambulance arrived and now here was the killer, his hands as soft as a child’s, his fingernails well tended, clean. The kid’s hands were loose, pliable. By the third card the kid knew what to do, began helping.

Later, after all the paperwork, the older cops said it was customary to take a guy out for his first arrest. The arrest had been credited to Francis, but they took Stanhope, too, bought him round after round while he told the story differently each time. The kid had stepped out and threatened them. The blood was dripping from every wall. Stanhope had blocked the exit while Francis wrestled the perp to the ground.

“Your partner,” one of the older cops said to Francis. “He’s creative.” Stanhope and Francis looked at each other. Were they partners? “You’re partners until the captain tells you otherwise,” the older cop said.

The cook came out of the kitchen carrying plates piled high with burgers, told them it was on the house.

“You going home already?” Stanhope said to Francis a little later. “Yes and so should you. Go home to your pregnant wife,” Francis said.

“The pregnant wife is why he’s staying out,” one of the others cracked.

***

It took an hour and fifteen minutes by subway to get back to Bay Ridge. As soon as Francis walked in, he stripped to his boxers and climbed into the bed Patsy had crammed into his living room for him. Someone had called the kid’s mother. Someone else had driven him to Central Booking. He’d said he was thirsty, so Francis had gotten him a soda from the machine. The kid gulped it down and then asked if he could fill the can with water from the tap. Francis went to the bathroom and filled it. “You’re a fool,” one of guys in plainclothes had said. He still had to learn everyone’s name. Who knew? Maybe the grocer had done something bad to the kid. Maybe he deserved what he got.

Patsy was out somewhere. Francis called Lena, prayed she’d pick up and he wouldn’t have to go through her mother.

“Did something happen today?” she asked after they’d chatted for a few minutes. “You don’t usually call this late.” Francis looked at the clock and saw it was near midnight. The paperwork and the beers had taken longer than he’d thought.

“Sorry. Go back to sleep.”

She was silent for so long he thought she had. “Were you afraid?” she asked. “You have to tell me.”

“No,” he said. And he hadn’t been, or at least he hadn’t felt what he understood fear to be.

“What then?” “I don’t know.”

“Try to keep it outside yourself, Francis,” she said, as if she’d been listening to his thoughts. “We have a plan, you and me.”

Ask Again, Yes: Gillam, Chapter One

Gillam was nice enough but lonely, Lena Teobaldo thought when she first saw it. It was the kind of place that if she were there on vacation she’d love for the first two days, and then by the third day she’d start looking forward to leaving. It didn’t seem quite real: the apple trees and maples, the shingled houses with front porches, the cornfields, the dairy, the kids playing stickball in the street as if they didn’t notice their houses were sitting on a half acre of grass. Later, she’d figure out that the kids played the games their parents had played growing up in the city. Stickball. Hopscotch. Kick the can. When a father taught a son how to throw a ball, he marched that boy to the middle of the road as if they were on a block tight with tenements, because that’s where he’d learned from his father. She’d agreed to the trip because it was something to do and if she’d stayed in Bay Ridge that Saturday, her mother would have made her bring food to Mrs. Venard, who’d never been right since her boy went missing in Vietnam.

Her cousin Karolina’s dress was hanging on the hook behind Lena’s bedroom door, altered and ready for Lena to wear in just six days’ time. She’d gotten her shoes, her veil. There was nothing more to do other than wait, so when Francis asked if she wanted to take a little trip to check out a town he’d heard about through a guy at work, she’d said sure, it was a beautiful fall day, it would be nice to get out to the country for a few hours, she’d pack a picnic lunch. They unpacked that lunch on a bench outside the public library, and in the time it took to unwrap their sandwiches, eat them, sip all the tea from the thermos, only one person entered the library. A northbound train pulled into the station and three people got off. Across the town square was a deli, and next to it a five-and-dime with a stroller parked outside. Francis had driven them in Lena’s father’s Datsun - her brother Karol’s copy of Led Zeppelin IV stuck in the tape deck. Lena didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t have the first idea how to drive. She’d assumed she’d never have to learn.

“So? What do you think?” Francis asked later as they eased back onto the Palisades Parkway. Lena opened the window and lit a cigarette.

“Pretty,” she said. “Quiet.” She slipped off her shoes and put her feet up on the dashboard. She’d put in for two weeks of vacation time - a week before her wedding plus a week after - and that day, a Saturday, was her first day of the longest stretch of days she’d had off in three years.

“You saw the train? There’s also a bus that goes to Midtown,” he said. She thought it a random piece of information until it hit her like a kick in the shin that he wanted to live there. He hadn’t said that. He’d said only that he wanted to take a spin in the car, check out a place he’d heard of. She thought he only wanted a break from all the wedding talk. Relatives from Italy and Poland were already arriving, and her parents’ apartment was packed with food and people every hour of the day. No one from Ireland was coming but some relation of Francis’s who’d emigrated to Chicago had sent a piece of Irish china. Francis said he didn’t mind. It was the bride’s day anyway. But now she saw he had a plan in mind. It seemed so far-fetched she decided not to mention it again unless he brought it up first.

A few weeks later, the wedding over and done with, their guests long departed, Lena back at work with a new name and a new band on her finger, Francis said it was time for them to move out of her parents’ apartment. He said that everyone had to tiptoe through the narrow living room if Lena’s sister, Natusia, was in there with her books. Karol was almost always in a bad mood, probably because the newlyweds had taken over his bedroom. There was nowhere to be alone. Every moment Francis spent there, he said, he felt like he should be offering to help with some- thing, do something. Their wedding gifts were stacked in corners and Lena’s mother was always admonishing everyone to be careful, think of the crystal. Lena thought it was nice, a half dozen people sitting down to dinner together, sometimes more, depending on who stopped by. For the first time she wondered if she’d known him well enough to marry him.

“But where?” she said.

They looked on Staten Island. They looked within Bay Ridge. They climbed walk-ups in Yorkville, Morningside Heights, the Village. They walked through houses filled with other people’s things, their photos displayed on ledges, their polyester flower arrangements. On all those visits, Lena could see the road to Gillam approaching like an exit on the freeway. They’d socked away the cash gifts they’d gotten at the wedding plus most of their salaries and had enough for a down payment.

One Saturday morning in January 1974, after he’d worked a midnight tour plus a few hours of overtime, Francis got to Bay Ridge and told Lena to get her coat, he’d found their house.

“I’m not going,” she said, looking up from her coffee with her face set like stone. Angelo Teobaldo was doing a crossword across from her. Gosia Teobaldo had just cracked two eggs onto a skillet. Standing six foot two in his patrolman’s uniform, Francis’s face burned.

“He’s your husband,” Angelo said to his daughter. A reprimand. Like she’d left her toys scattered on the carpet and forgotten to put them away.

“You keep quiet,” Gosia said, motioning for him to zip his lip. “We’re having breakfast at Hinsch’s,” she announced, extinguishing the flame under the skillet.

“Let’s just go see, Lena. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“Oh, sure,” Lena said.

An hour and twenty minutes later, Lena pressed her forehead against the glass of the passenger window and looked at the house that would be theirs. There was a brightly lettered For Sale sign outside. The hydrangea that would flower in June was just a clump of frostbitten sticks. The current owners were home, their Ford was in the driveway, so Francis kept the engine running.

“What’s that? Are they rocks?” Toward the back of the property were five huge rocks, lined up by Mother Nature hundreds of millennia ago in ascending order, the tallest maybe five feet high.

“Boulders,” Francis said. “They’re all over this area. The realtor told me the builders left some as natural dividers between the houses. They remind me of Ireland.”

Lena looked at him as if to say, So that’s why you brought me here. He’d met a realtor. His mind was made up. The houses on that street - Jefferson - and the surrounding streets - Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe - were closer together than the houses farther from town, and Francis said that was because these houses were older, built back in the 1920s when there was a tannery in town and everyone walked to work. He thought Lena would like that. There was a porch out front.

“Who will I talk to?” she asked.

“To our neighbors,” he said. “To the people you meet. You make friends faster than anyone. Besides, you’ll still be in the city every day. You’ll have the girls you work with. The bus stops right at the end of the block. You don’t even have to learn to drive if you don’t want to.” He’d be her driver, he joked.

He couldn’t explain to her that he needed the trees and the quiet as a correction for what he saw on the job, how crossing a bridge and having that physical barrier between him and his beat felt like leaving one life and entering another. In his imagination he had it all organized: Officer Gleeson could exist there, and Francis Gleeson could exist here. In academy, some of the instructors were old-timers who claimed they’d never in their thirty-year careers so much as drawn their weapons, but after only six months Francis had drawn several times. His sergeant had just recently shot a thirty-year-old man in the chest during a standoff beside the Bruckner Expressway, and the man died on the scene. But it was a good kill, they all said, because the man was a known junkie and had been armed. Sergeant hadn’t seemed the slightest bit concerned. Francis had nodded along with the rest of them and gone out for drinks when their tour was over. But the next day, when someone had to meet with the man’s mother and the mother of his children to explain to them what had happened since they wouldn’t leave the waiting room for anything, it seemed to Francis that he was the only one who felt rattled. The man had had a mother. He’d been a father. He hadn’t always been a junkie. Standing by the coffeepot and wishing the women would go the hell home, it was as if he could see the whole rest of the man’s life - not just the moment he’d foolishly swung around while holding his little .22.

And though he told Lena none of this, only that work was fine, things were busy, she sensed the thing he wasn’t saying and looked at the house again. She imagined a bright row of flowers at the foot of the porch. They could have a guest bedroom. It was true that the bus from Gillam to Midtown Manhattan would take less time than the subway from Bay Ridge.

***

In April 1974, just a few weeks after they packed a rental truck and moved north to Gillam, a local physician completed an internal exam in his little office beside the movie theater and told Lena she was nine weeks along. Her days of running for the bus were numbered, he said. Her only job now was to eat right, to keep her mind peaceful, to not spend too much time on her feet. She and Francis were walking around the house looking for a place to sow a tomato plant when she told him. He halted, baffled.

“You know how this happened, right?” she asked with her most serious expression.

“You should be sitting,” he said, dropping the plant and grabbing her by the shoulders, steering her to the patio. The previous owners had left behind two rusted wrought-iron chairs, and he was glad he hadn’t thrown them away. He stood, then sat across from her, then stood.

“Should I stay here until November?” Lena asked.

She stopped working at twenty-five weeks because her mother was driving her crazy, saying all those people rushing through the Port Authority Bus Terminal might elbow her, might knock her down. On the day she fitted the dustcover over her typewriter for the last time, the other girls threw her a party in the lunchroom, made her wear a baby’s bonnet they decorated with ribbons from the gifts.

Home all day with more free time than she’d ever had in her life, she’d only begun to get to know the elderly couple who lived in the house to the right of theirs when the woman died of bladder cancer, and her husband just two weeks later of a massive stroke. For a while, the empty house bore no sign of change and Lena began to think of it as a family member whom everyone had forgotten to tell. The wind chime they’d hung from their mailbox still tinkled. A pair of work gloves lay on top of their garbage can as if someone might come back and pull them on. Eventually, the edges of their lawn began to look craggy. Newspapers swollen with rain, bleached by the sun, made a pile at the top of their driveway. One day, since no one seemed to be doing anything about it, Lena went over and cleared them away. Every once in a while a realtor would lead a couple up the driveway, but none of it seemed to go anywhere. At some point Lena realized that she could go a whole day without speaking or hearing a single human voice if she kept the TV turned off.

Natalie Gleeson was born in November of 1974, one month to the day after Francis and Lena’s first wedding anniversary. Lena’s mother came to stay for a week but she couldn’t leave Angelo alone any longer than that. The man couldn’t so much as boil water for tea. She said she was coming to help Lena, but she spent most of the day leaning over the bassinet and cooing, “I’m your busha, little one. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“You take the baby out every day, no matter the weather, and you walk around the neighborhood for one hour,” Gosia advised her daughter. Natalie was asleep in the pram with a wool blanket packed around her. “Look around at the trees, at the nice even sidewalks. Wave to your neighbors and think about what a lucky girl you are. What a lucky baby she is. She has a drawer full of clothes already. Francis is a good man. Repeat it to yourself again and again. Go into the shops. Tell them your name and that you just moved here. Everybody loves a new baby.”

Lena began to cry. When the bus approached, she felt a wild temptation to climb aboard behind her mother, take the baby in her arms, leave the pram on the sidewalk, and never return.

“When you were born, I used to daydream about leaving you with Mrs. Shefflin - remember Mrs. Shefflin? My idea was I’d ask her to watch you while I ran out for a carton of milk and then I’d never come back.”

“What? Really?” Lena said, her tears instantly drying. It was so unexpected she started laughing. Then she was laughing so hard she was crying again.

***

And then, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend 1975, Lena was nursing Natalie in the rocker upstairs when she looked out the window and saw a moving truck come to a stop outside. She’d just learned she was pregnant again, two months gone already, and her doctor had joked that her Irish husband had almost given her Irish twins. The realtor’s sign had been removed a few weeks earlier, and now that she thought about it, she remembered Francis saying something about the house having finally sold. Lately she felt so tired it was hard to hold a thought in her head.

She rushed down the stairs and out onto the porch with Natalie tucked into the crook of her arm. “Hello!” she called out to her new neighbors, and later, when she recounted the meeting to Francis, she said she was afraid she’d said something corny and made a bad impression. Natalie was still hungry, and was sucking on her little fist.

A blond woman in a pretty eyelet sundress was walking up the driveway carrying a lamp in each hand.

“You bought the house,” Lena said. Her voice was an octave too high. “I’m Lena. We just moved here last year. Welcome! Do you need any help?” “I’m Anne,” the new neighbor said, and Lena heard traces of a brogue.

“That’s Brian, my husband.” She smiled politely. “How old’s the baby?” “Six months,” Lena said. Finally, on the first warm day of the year,

there was a new person to admire the baby, to offer a finger for Natalie to grip. She wanted to ask a thousand questions at once. Where had they moved from, how long had they been married, what made them choose Gillam, how did they meet, what kind of music did they like, what part of Ireland was Anne from, did they want to come over for a drink later, once they’d unpacked?

Anne was very beautiful, Lena noted, but there was something else about her, too. Once, at work, when Lena was passed over for a pro- motion, her boss Mr. Eden had said that it was no reflection of Lena’s performance, it was just that the other woman had more presence, and the promotion would mean greeting clients. Lena had no idea what he meant but she didn’t want to seem stupid, so she accepted his explanation and went back to her desk. It was her accent, maybe. Too Brooklyn. Maybe it was her habit of fixing her hair at her desk after lunch. One time she’d gotten a strand of celery caught between her molars and for the life of her she couldn’t get it out with her tongue, so she’d jammed her finger into her mouth and coaxed it out with her fingernail. Now she wondered if presence was the thing her new neighbor had, if it was something a person had to be born with and could never be learned.

Anne glanced over her shoulder at her husband as she put her hand flat against her own stomach, and lowered her voice. “She’ll have company in a few months.”

“How wonderful!” Lena said.

Brian Stanhope, who had not yet said hello, was crossing the lawn behind them just then and heard what his wife said. He staggered as if he’d tripped on something, and instead of approaching the women as it seemed he was about to do, he turned sharply and kept unloading the truck. Lena asked Anne if she felt tired, if she’d been sick. It was all normal, she said. Every pregnancy is different. Keeping crackers by her bed might help. If she ever let herself get hungry, she’d end up feeling sick all day. Anne nodded but the advice seemed to slide right by her, and she didn’t seem to want to discuss it with Brian listening. Lena remembered that she hadn’t heeded much advice either. Every woman learns on the job.

Eventually, Brian came over to them. “I work with Francis,” he said. “Well, I used to. Until a few weeks ago I was in the Four-One.”

“You’re kidding,” Lena said. “What a coincidence!”

“Not really,” Brian said, grinning. “He’s the one who told me about the house. He didn’t say?”

Later, when Francis got home, she wanted to know why he hadn’t told her they were coming. She could have made a welcome party, had food ready. But he had told her, he insisted. He said the house sold, she said, but not that it sold to his friend.

“Well, I don’t know about friend,” Francis said.

“You work with him. You eat meals with him. You’ve known him since academy. Weren’t you partners for a while? He’s your friend,” Lena said.

“I’m sorry,” Francis said. “I forgot. He got transferred. I haven’t seen him in a few weeks.” He pulled her to his chest. “What’s the wife like? They lost a baby, did I tell you that? A stillborn, I think. Probably going on two years ago now.”

Lena gasped and thought of Natalie’s warm belly rising and falling in her crib upstairs. “How awful.” She recalled with horror the advice she’d offered, how silently Anne had taken it.

***

Lena paid attention to her neighbor’s belly to see how it was growing, but she wore everything so loose - oversized nursing scrubs on workdays, and on her days off peasant blouses and skirts so long they almost skimmed the ground. Lena often watched Anne hurry to her car in the mornings, keys in hand, and felt a small flame of jealousy for the other woman’s freedom. Sometimes she’d go out to the mailbox when she saw that Anne was outside and try to approach her, to start a conversation, but most times Anne just gave Lena a light wave and went in. A few times, when she saw Anne’s car was in the driveway, she’d gone to their door and knocked but no one ever answered. Once, she stuck a note in their mailbox asking if they wanted to come to dinner some Saturday night - they could name the date - but got no reply.

Francis said maybe they’d never gotten the note. Maybe the mailman had taken it. “Can you ask Brian?” Lena asked.

“Listen,” Francis said. “Don’t worry about it. Some people don’t like to make friends so close. I can understand that, can’t you?”

“I understand completely,” Lena said, then took Natalie into her arms and went up to their bedroom to sit on the edge of the bed.

***

Summer came and went. Brian was outside raking their yard one Saturday when Lena spotted Francis chatting with him on the narrow strip of grass between their driveways. Francis was laughing so hard he had to bend over a little to catch his breath. Sara was born, another healthy girl, except this time around Lena couldn’t rest when the baby rested because Natalie was there, too, unsteady on her feet and always toddling toward the stairs. Eventually a full nine months went by since the Stanhopes had moved in, and no matter how early the pregnancy had been on the day they arrived, baby Stanhope would have been in the world by then. Never had Lena detected crisis from next door, the house cloaked with the kind of sadness a lost baby would bring. One day, after arriving home from the grocery store, both babies wailing from the backseat, Lena stood at the open trunk of the car considering the dozen bags she had to get inside when she glanced up and found Anne staring at her from the end of their front porch. Lena had learned to drive but she wasn’t confident about it. The only route she’d dared so far without Francis was to the grocery store and back. She was afraid she’d done something wrong and Anne had seen.

“Hello!” Lena called over, but Anne turned her back and went inside.

***

When it was almost Sara’s first birthday, Lena observed that Anne’s belly appeared to be growing. She badgered Francis to ask Brian next time he saw him.

“Ah, come on,” Francis said. “They’ll tell us if they want to tell us.”

But one day it must have come up. Lena was sewing a button onto one of Francis’s shirts when he came into the kitchen to wash his hands. Without turning from the sink, he said she was right, the Stanhopes were indeed having a baby. Being a man he hadn’t gotten a single detail, but Lena knew Anne must be close to her due date when her car stayed in their driveway all day and she no longer seemed to go to work. Lena waited for the right time, the right day, and then she put Sara in the playpen, turned on the television for Natalie, folded up the old baby swing, and trudged across the snow-dusted driveways to the Stanhopes’ front door. Anne seemed taken aback by the gesture, and though she didn’t invite Lena in, she did ask if she wouldn’t mind demonstrating how to unfold it, how to use the straps. Lena, thrilled, took off her mittens to open it on the Stanhopes’ porch, to show her how to unsnap the fabric if it needed to be washed, how to drape it around the frame and secure it. As they talked, Anne, who was wearing only a thin wool cardigan, said she was due the following week, and Lena told her what she hadn’t even told her mother yet, that she was pregnant, too. Since she estimated her own due date was about six months behind Anne’s, she figured the Stanhope baby could occupy the swing for six months - which the manufacturer had printed as the maximum age anyway - and then Anne could pass it back. They could pool what they had and try to help each other. Anne was going to stay home with the baby for a while and then decide about work. She liked working, she told Lena, as if it was a confession, and Lena, feeling an opening, told her that she understood, that being home with a baby was more difficult than it looked from the outside, more difficult than it seemed like it should be.

“If you need anything - if Brian isn’t home when the time comes - or anything at all, you know where to find me.” As she crossed back over the driveways, she thought: It was just that we got off on the wrong foot. She thought: She probably lost that baby and couldn’t face me, having two. She thought: Maybe I offended her somehow, without realizing, and now it’s all water under the bridge.

Peter was born less than a week later, nine pounds ten ounces. “It was gruesome,” Brian said to Francis.

“As far as I know they’re all like that,” Francis said. And then: “You didn’t see… that time when…?”

“No, no. It was nothing like this. They knew, you see, beforehand.” “I didn’t mean to—”

“Not at all. It’s fine.”

Anne held her son on her lap for the ride home from the hospital, and when she carried him into the house, the corner of his thick blue blanket flapped in the bitter February wind. Lena had Natalie and Sara scribble “Welcome Home” drawings, then left them outside the Stanhopes’ door, weighted down with a poppy-seed loaf she’d baked that day. The next morning, while Francis was waiting for the teakettle to boil and Lena was ladling oatmeal into bowls, the sound of the doorbell rang out. The wind had rattled the house all night long, and the morning news said it had brought down tree limbs all over the county. Francis thought the doorbell had something to do with that, someone wanting help, someone alerting them to something, a downed wire, a closed road. Instead, he opened the door to find Anne Stanhope wearing a beautiful ankle-length camel hair coat buttoned to the throat, and holding the baby swing. She was wearing bright red lipstick but there were dark circles under her eyes. “Here,” she said, holding the swing out to him. “Is everything all right?” Lena asked over her husband’s shoulder. “Is the baby all right?”

“I can take care of my own baby,” Anne said. “And I can bake for my own husband.”

Lena went silent, wide-eyed. “Of course you can!” she said finally. “I just know it’s hard in the beginning so I thought-” “It’s not hard at all. He’s a perfect baby. We’re fine.”

Francis found purchase inside the exchange long before Lena. “Well, thanks a lot,” he said, taking the swing and beginning to shut the door, but Lena stopped him.

“Wait a second. Just wait a second. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Keep the swing,” she said. “The baby will nap in it. Really. We’re not even using it.”

“Are you listening?” Anne said. “I don’t want it. If I need something for my son, I’m fully capable of buying it.”

“Fair enough,” Francis said, and this time closed the door. He tossed the folded swing toward the couch, where it bounced off the cushion and clattered to the floor. While Lena stood openmouthed in the middle of the living room, a wooden spoon in her hand, he shrugged and said: “It’s him I feel sorry for. He’s a nice fella.”

“What in the world did I do to her?” Lena asked.

“Not a thing,” Francis said, already headed back into the kitchen to his tea and his newspaper. “Something’s not right.” He tapped the side of his head. “Just don’t bother with her anymore.”

***

Six months later, Kate was born into the swampy humidity of August. Lena always said she couldn’t nurse Kate because as soon as they were skin to skin they’d both get so sweaty she’d slip right off. She gave up after only a day or two, and when Francis was on midnights he’d come home, drop his things by the door, and give Kate her first bottle of the day. It was such a break for Lena, and it was so sweet to see father and daughter staring at each other over the bottle while she drank, that Lena wished she’d bottle-fed all three. “You’re a dote,” Francis would say to the baby when she finished, and then flip her to his shoulder for a burp. Peter, six months ahead, was eating cereal and applesauce while Kate was naked on her belly, learning to hold the weight of her own head. Later, they’d both wonder when their brains first registered the presence of the other. Could Peter hear Kate cry when the windows of both houses were open? When he learned to stand up to the porch railing, did he ever see Kate’s sisters pulling her along the sidewalk in their Radio Flyer and wonder who she was?

***

For the rest of her life, when asked to recall her earliest memory, Kate would remember watching him run around the side of his house with a red ball in his hand and already knowing his name.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Michael Joseph, 14.99) is out now.

Images: Unsplash

Topics

Share this article

Recommended by Sarah Biddlecombe

Books

The 10 new books you need for your August summer holiday

Charge up your holiday reading with August's best new fiction and non-fiction releases.

Posted by
Francesca Brown
Published
Books

Exclusive: read the first chapter of Liane Moriarty’s gripping new book

The Big Little Lies author is back and better than ever...

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
Published
Books

Read the first chapter of 2019’s most gripping thriller, My Lovely Wife

Warning: this book will keep you reading late into the night

Posted by
Samantha Downing
Published
Books

Read the first chapter of Reese Witherspoon’s gripping new book-to-movie here

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the book everyone is going to be talking about in 2019

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
Published