Helpless

A Novel

Barbara Gowdy

Metropolitan Books

Chapter One
 
On a sweltering afternoon in early June, Celia Fox stands at the railing of her deck and smokes the second-to-last cigarette she’ll allow herself before going to work.
 
The apartment is small and stuffy (one of the drawbacks to living on the third floor of a Victorian house) but at least she and Rachel have this deck with its overhanging horse-chestnut tree whose glovelike leaves are already big enough to shade the entire front yard. From the railing of the deck you can see both the street out front and the lane that runs along the back of the stores on Parliament Street. Usually there’s something going on in the lane, although right now, because it’s so hot, not many people are out: only a legless man, dozing in his wheelchair behind the Shoppers Drug Mart dumpster, and the muscle-bound dog walker who holds all his leashes in one fist like a charioteer. An appliance-repair van drives by, and Celia wonders if repair places sell used air conditioners. Except she can’t afford even a used one. And anyway, she has to finish filling in the modeling-school application if she wants to make the deadline.
 
Does she want to make it? She hasn’t decided. Nine strikes her as a little young to start trading in on your looks, although, if she chooses to believe the guy from the modeling agency, nine verges on decrepitude. When she told him Rachel’s age he said he’d have put her at seven and a half, eight at the outside. “But that’s okay,” he said, eyeing Rachel as if she were a used car, “she can pass.”
 
By this time Celia was regretting having let him buy her and Rachel iced teas in Java Ville, but he’d chased them up Parliament Street and he’d seemed, in those first few minutes, so boyish and pleasant.
 
“Little girls are a big deal right now,” he told her. “For certain high-end ads they’re pulling in close to a thousand, plus residuals.”
 
Rachel’s head snapped up from her book. “A thousand dollars?”
 
“That’s right.”
 
“I could be paid a thousand dollars?”
 
“Once we get that face of yours out there.” He assured Celia that for girls with Rachel’s potential the modeling school waived its fee.
 
“What does ‘potential’ mean?” Rachel asked.
 
“Beauty,” he said. “You know you’re beautiful, right?”
 
Rachel shrugged.
 
“Take it from me.” He looked back and forth from her to Celia, clearly wondering the same thing everybody who met them for the first time wondered.
 
At which point Celia picked up the pamphlets and application form. “We’ll have to read all this over,” she said. She had no intention of satisfying his curiosity but she wasn’t offended, either. Didn’t she herself live in perpetual amazement that she could be her daughter’s biological mother? She pushed back her chair, then saw by the inclination of Rachel’s head that he was going to be set straight after all.
 
And here it came: “Some people ask if I’m adopted. Well, I’m not.”
 
“Okay,” the guy said.
 
“My father’s black. Which is probably obvious.”
 
“It would have been my guess.”
 
With a new inflection of pride or challenge, as if she’d only recently figured out that this information wasn’t so predictable, Rachel said, “He’s an architect in New York City. His name’s Robert Smith.”
 
“Cool,” the guy said. “An architect in New York City.”
 
Or a veterinarian in Hoboken . . . Celia has no idea. She isn’t even sure that his last name is Smith.
 
She goes inside and reads a depressing fiction piece in Harper’s about a husband indulging his wife’s bizarre mental breakdown. Then she shoves the cat off the piano and practices “Besame Mucho” for about half an hour, after which she forces herself to take another stab at the modeling-school application. She’s still on the first page (“Would you describe your child as overly sensitive to criticism?” “Is your child afraid of dogs?”) when Rachel arrives home, calling that Leonard wants to be a model, too. In exchange for free piano lessons, Leonard Wong accompanies Rachel to and from school. He’s twelve years old but acts forty, a terrifyingly high-minded boy who sends his allowance to an orphanage in Shanghai.
 
“He’s not really model material,” Celia says tactfully.
 
“I know,” Rachel says. “He needs braces. I didn’t tell him, though.” She comes over and presses a palm along Celia’s bare, sweat-sticky shoulders. “Hey!” She has seen the application. “What’s this still doing here?” She snatches it up.
 
“I’ve been having second thoughts,” Celia admits. “Would you like some lemonade?”
 
“Not right now,” Rachel says stonily.
 
Celia reaches for her cigarettes. “Let’s go outside.”
 
“It’s like you don’t even care if we’re poor,” Rachel says, following Celia onto the deck. She drops on the sofa and starts tugging foam from a hole in the cushion.
 
Celia has gone over to the railing. “Stop that—” nodding at the cushion. “We’re not poor.”
 
“Whatever.”
 
“We’re thrifty.” Celia lights her cigarette. “Do you want to be a model? Forget the money. Do you want to spend all your time after school and on weekends rushing around to auditions and sitting for hours under hot lights and hardly ever having any fun?”
 
“The guy said a thousand dollars.”
 
“It’s not your job to worry about money.”
 
“When you die from smoking, it’ll be my job.”
 
“I’m cutting down.”
 
“Liar.” She jumps up and comes over to Celia and hugs her arm. “Liar, liar!” she cries theatrically. “You smoke more than Mika, even.”
 
Mika, their landlord and closest friend. “He’s a social smoker,” Celia says. “He doesn’t count.”
 
Rachel releases Celia and starts spinning around the deck.
 
“So,” Celia says, “can I rip up the application?”
 
“You’re the one who brought it home.” She throws herself against the railing and slumps there.
 
“Good. That’s settled then.”
 
Rachel straightens. Something in the lane has caught her attention.
 
“What?” Celia says, turning to see. The guy in the wheelchair is gone. Across the street two pigeons peck at a dropped ice cream cone. “What are you looking at?”
 
“You don’t have enough clothes on.”
 
“Nobody could tell from there.”
 
Rachel scoops up Felix, who has just strolled out onto the deck. “I think I’ll go with you tonight,” she says.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Gowdy. All rights reserved.