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It was 5:30 p.m., still time to catch the 6:17, but not much.

Caretaker

“I’ve got it,” said Monica, rummaging up the Mickey Mouse statuette from the belongings on her sister Linda’s dresser. A relic from the old house, and given to Linda as a souvenir by their grandmother after it was sold, Monica planned on giving it to her boss Howard who collected them. She pocketed the statuette and headed for the door.

“I don’t know why she gave it to me, I’m not a kid,” said Linda.

“That’s right,” said Monica.

Linda was 29 years old, four years older than Monica. She was slow; a diagnosed schizophrenic, her apartment was funded by social security checks and she didn’t decorate much. She gazed at the pile of upended items left in Monica’s wake, then scooped up a pill bottle. It was a deep translucent orange with a tight, white cap and empty of all contents except for some powdered traces clinging to its insides.

“Mom always said I was childlike, not childish,” said Linda.

“Exactly,” said Monica. Her eyes scanned the room. No errand was left undone, bills were paid, groceries stored. She wouldn’t have to see her sister again for another week.

“I swear, Grandma treats me like a kid, because I’m short,” said Linda.

Monica fastened the buttons on her new trench coat, ignoring her sister whose prattle, subject to random and meaningless tangents and fueled with a slow burning indignation, was still too dull to fully distract Monica from her ultimate intention, which was to meet Howard by seven o’clock. She snatched up her purse, ready to make her exit.

“Hey, Monica?” said Linda, before Monica’s outstretched hand could make a clean landing on the doorknob. Monica braced herself for the oncoming query.

“What?” she snapped.

What more could she do? She had already spent the weekend traveling between Linda’s and her grandmother’s, both of whom lived in separate towns and could not rely on each other, only Monica. That weekend alone, Monica had taken out their grandmother’s garbage, folded her laundry, washed her hair and clipped her toenails. She had slept on the stiff new sofa bed and, in the morning, fixed them coffee from packets of Sanka and dry milk; Monica observed that the older people got the more their food resembled dust.

Then, in a hurry to get to Linda’s place, Monica had tried to shove the folding metal bed frame down into the sofa’s gullet. “Don’t force it,” was her grandmother’s sharp directive. Quivery and fragile at 80, their grandmother had survived a husband, a son, and a daughter-in-law without wavering from an ironclad doctrine of household order above all else. She had swept, scrubbed, polished, washed, dried, folded, pressed, stacked, coiled, zip-locked and stored without end in the face of heartbreak, depression, poverty, illness, and death, but not without emitting the occasional slivered beam of rage from behind an otherwise lady-like composure; fallout still capable of shaking Monica to the core. “Take care of your things,” was their grandmother’s perpetual refrain. Monica had eased up until the bed’s black legs finally collapsed against themselves like a dead beetle’s and slid into place under the couch and away from view.

Monica had taken Linda to the grocery store, helped her buy fruits and vegetables with her food stamps. She didn’t know why she bothered. The produce would be rotten the next time she visited; the garbage would be filled with soda cans and the foil trays from frozen hors d’oeuvres packages. Linda liked the mini quiches and popped them like gum drops. She was as big as a house. Monica turned to look at her sister.

Linda held up the empty pill bottle that glowed amber by the dresser’s dim lamplight. “I need to get this filled,” said Linda.

Monica bit her lip. “Weren’t you supposed to do that with the social worker?” she asked.

“I didn’t,” said Linda.

Monica waited for a story she knew was not forthcoming. Linda’s style was not to withhold; as far as she was concerned, there was nothing else to tell, but Monica’s style was always to expect something more. She looked at her watch.

About meeting up with Howard, Monica knew this: he was fastidious about his schedule. As Vice President of Sales he claimed his success depended on it. He reminded his assistant Monica of this daily, hourly, minute-by-minute in the critical job function she performed with his calendar, in the urgent, impatient way he would lean (sexily) over her desk, dropping business cards and scraps of paper with appointments scribbled on them that sliced his day, and hers, into half and three quarter-hour ribbons that Monica spliced together again inside her computer, carefully weaving them into a coherent map of potential business conquests that only took him out of the office and away from her.

This evening, she was the appointment. A miraculous happenstance of rearranged engagements and Monday morning flight cancellations had him bee-lining it through Hoboken on the way to Newark. He said they could get a bite to eat – a sandwich – tops, but that was contingent on her arriving on time.

“You’ve got two dollars, haven’t you?” Monica asked. She began to paw through her purse for loose change to cover the co-pay. She held it out to her.

“Monica, some people think that because I go to Helping House that I have problems,” said Linda.

“Why can’t you just get it yourself? Isn’t that what they’re trying to teach you?” said Monica, shaking the coins desperately in her hands.

“No, Monica,” said Linda, reverting to the taunting manner of their childhood when she was still considered the elder and Monica’s superior. “It costs ninety dollars.”

“Who told you it costs ninety dollars?” Monica yelled, her voice cracking in the dry overheated air of the basement apartment. An abrupt silence followed the outburst and Linda looked at Monica with a dull-eyed, murderous stare.

Linda’s mental health had begun deteriorating at a very young age, taking her from a cheerful if not entirely bright child who made friends easily, but didn’t keep them long, who was left back in kindergarten and never achieved mastery over the grammar school basics at which Monica excelled, to a willful and slightly erratic preteen who had retreated from her sixth grade life as a spitball target into a fantasy world of Archie comic books and Teen Beat gossip magazines; who could as simply, to 8-year-old Monica’s amazement, pick up the phone and dial a Hollywood starlet (she usually only got through to their assistants) as she could, with the same pluck, throw herself out of a moving car into traffic or smash a Coke bottle over her own head.

In the throes of adolescence, the effort to keep up with the world had proved too exhausting for Linda, the ability of her parents, teachers or anyone else to understand what was happening to her, too daunting, and the ease with which prescribing more and more medication to ameliorate the repository of anxious, angry and short-circuited thoughts that had become her mind, an increasingly commonplace practice. Eventually, it seemed to Monica, as if everyone had stopped trying to figure it out. There was scar tissue on her brain that doctors and neurologists had never explained adequately to her parents and then her parents died without explaining it to Monica either. Now, it was just a fact of both of their lives.

For many years before her parents’ death, they had all lived under one roof in their grandmother’s house in Fair Lawn. It was meant to be a temporary situation – until their punch-drunk father swore off boxing for good and got back on his feet – but lasted until they were both gone. The family’s home, its container really, dissolved after that, like a damp cardboard box that had held too much.

When their grandmother finally sold the house, they’d each been absorbed into the town that could sustain them best. Ridgewood, because it housed a psychiatric outpatient facility for Linda; and in Radburn, because of its services for the elderly, their grandmother could remain independent, walking to the local ShopRite where she could still terrorize the cashiers who bagged her groceries incorrectly. It was Hoboken for Monica, because from there it was a straight shot on the tubes into the city.

“Who told you it costs that much?” Monica asked again, trying to steady her voice. “It shouldn’t cost ninety dollars.”

Linda was on the waiting list for assisted living and had been moving up faster since their mother died, but she had to stay on her medication. She had to behave like she didn’t need too much assistance or that she hadn’t already spent a lifetime waiting.

“Those girls,” said Linda, sullen and doomful, “at the drugstore.”

Monica looked at the clock radio and compared it to her watch. The time was correct, but come a power outage or daylight savings and she would have to reset it for Linda who didn’t pay attention. Monica threw the change into her purse and turned her back on her sister again, grasping the doorknob in a choke hold that rattled the cheaply constructed door at its hinges.

“Ok, ok,” said Monica, finally. “Get your jacket.”

The autumn sun was lower in the sky than when the two sisters had first passed through the town’s shopping district hours before and clouds had started to gather. Their quick pace was matched by other pedestrians hurrying to parked cars, clutching packages and hustling along distracted children in order to finish up errands as the town’s businesses began to shutter and call it a day. From the sidewalk outside the Town and Country Pharmacy, they caught sight through the display window of the three teenaged sales clerks behind the register. Monica glanced over at her sister. What bonded them was a similar fear of teenaged girls, especially in groups. What divided them was Linda’s decision long ago to never inhabit their realm in body, mind or spirit.

“I don’t like that one,” said Linda.

“Why not?” Monica asked.

“She’s always frowning at me,” said Linda.

From years of studying their grandmother’s collection of old family photos, Monica could see in Linda traces of their family’s European and Mid-Atlantic forbears. From many readings of the neatly typed family tree whose soft, yellowing onionskin paper lay limply like a pressed flower between leaves of the photo album, she knew that they were the descendants of a centuries-long mishmash of world-weary travelers including the English, Irish, German and Dutch, who worked their way across the Atlantic and up through Maryland and Delaware, eventually landing in New Jersey, and whose features had settled into the original outline of this now puffy, medicated face. Monica recognized herself in these features as well, yet she had been raised with the belief that not only was she the one capable of making the next leg of the family’s journey, but also, and more importantly, she was the prettier one.

“Let’s go,” said Monica, pulling the plate glass door, as its polished steel handle instructed.

Inside, the three clerks had already dressed and primped for an evening out. They wore stylish clothes, far more extravagant than their $7.50 an hour earnings could possibly maintain, but this was affluent Ridgewood and the high school work force consisted of ambitious teens compiling items of interest for their college applications or, merely minding their parents’ businesses. Livelihood was not the imperative. The sisters, who’d been garbed in discount store odds and ends since they were little, looked on in slight intimidation. Even Linda’s nemesis, who despite a mouthful of braces that, indeed, buckled her mouth downward into a permanent frown, and whose simpleminded expression belied any potential threat to Linda or her sister, was dressed to kill.

“Hi, hon,” she said to Linda. “What’s up? How can I help you?”

“Uh,” said Linda, looking at Monica.

“Out with it,” she said good naturedly, looking to her counterparts for reinforcement. “We’re closing up!” A titter arose from all three.

“We’re picking up a prescription,” said Monica. She thrust the bottle at the clerk.

“I know that one,” said the second clerk who was manning the register and was all business. Clearly, she was the one in charge. “It’s over here from when you last came in.” She picked up the creamy white bag with its paperwork stapled in front and held it for them to see.

“Can you ring it up,” asked Monica. “We are kind of in a hurry, too.”

The third clerk had already gathered her coat and purse and flicked her long hair nervously while staring at the display of drugstore alarm clocks, Big Bens, Little Bens and their digital counterparts all set to the exact time, now 5:55 p.m.

“I’ll need to see your insurance card,” said the second clerk. She looked in the middle-distance, neither at Monica nor Linda.

Monica looked at Linda’s purse. Although it was autumn, the cloth handbag had been intended for summertime use, probably many summers ago, and Monica knew it contained the flotsam of a disorderly mind resting in its soiled folds. She looked at her sister, hopelessly.

Linda stared ahead of her impassively as if she didn’t hear and then blurted out “I’ve got it!” suddenly and to Monica’s relief. She groped inside her purse, bringing up unscratched lottery tickets and crumpled pieces of Helping House bucks, the currency of mental patients used to purchase thrift shop cast-offs as bribery for good behavior. Eventually, she found the card tucked in a side pocket and held it up triumphantly.

“It’s expired,” said the clerk, barely looking at it.

“How do you know that?” asked Monica, snatching it from her sister’s hand and searching for the date before looking up at the clerk who looked despairingly at Monica.

“Look, you know my sister,” Monica said. “Just ring it up.”

“Ok,” she said, punching buttons as her two colleagues looked on with interest and Monica kept her eyes riveted to the electronic register’s display as it began to light up.

“Oh, come on,” said Monica. “It’s a two dollar co-pay. How could it be ninety?”

“I’m just following the rules,” the clerk said. “If we don’t have a current insurance card on file, I have to charge full price. I can’t make any exceptions. I told your sister yesterday. She knows.”

Monica turned towards Linda with a swift anger, sizing up her opponent,  and then she cast her eyes downward at her sister, her first foe. “Why – ?”

“What does it matter,” stammered Linda, stepping away from the counter.

“Because we could’ve called the insurance company, that’s what. We could’ve – ”

“They’re just douchebags, anyway.” Linda said quietly.

The clerk behind the cash register held firm, waiting, knowing that it was her responsibility to maintain order, although a flicker of fear crossed her eyes. At a safe distance behind her, the other girls’ eyes had widened and they clapped their hands over their mouths to stifle their laughter.

“What does it matter,” Linda said louder this time, and with the fire-and-brimstone cadence of a street preacher belting out her next line, “Because, they’re just CUNTS.”

Linda turned and headed for the door. Monica panicked. The staccato rhythm of the expletives that followed seemed to rock the shelves of their balms and salves and shake the cardboard display stands with their grinning spokesmodels aping vigorous and healthy lifestyles. Monica shot out her arm to restrain her sister but managed only to clutch a handful of Linda’s jacket in their sudden struggle. The clerks, bent over to contain their nerve-strained mirth, turned toward the office door behind the register that led to the pharmacist’s perch above the store and tripped over themselves as they tried to climb the short staircase and exit from the scene.

“Shut up you idiots,” the clerk at the register called to her friends. “Look,” she said, turning back to face Monica. “I can’t ring it up for anything less. My dad will kill me. Can’t you just pay for it and get it reimbursed or something?”

But Monica did not keep that amount in her wallet; she didn’t have that much in her checking account and her one credit card was tapped out. She barely had the cash she needed to get back home and to get to her date with Howard.

At that moment, Linda yanked out of Monica’s grasp. She flung her arm outward and around, closing her small hand into a tight fist, gathering her strength and organizing her muscles with the speed of a welter weight, a class for which their harshly critical father would have been quick to point out she did not qualify, and with the purity of movement to land a solid blow precisely to the center of Monica’s face. She hitched her shoulders to adjust her jacket and regain her balance and proceeded quickly out the pharmacy’s back door. In shock, Monica wiped away the first trickle of blood from her nose and looked at the splotch of velvety red against the pink flesh of her outstretched fingers. She wiped her bloody hand across her coat and looked up in time see Linda dart from the light of a street lamp into the purple-grey dusk.

Monica shouted Linda’s name out into the chill night air, but there was no response. She wound her way around the assembly of dumpsters in the main street’s back alley and through the parking lot in what she thought was the direction of her sister. After traveling the perimeter of the square at the center of town, Monica froze in place for a moment, not sure of the way to turn. Then as the shock of the punch began to wear off, she picked up her pace.

She knew she must find Linda and make peace; that she must straighten things out at the pharmacy. In fact, there were always a hundred items on her to-do list that required running about to make things right and to course correct, only to discover that when she had checked the items off, she was right back where she had started, with people needing more than she could give. Howard wouldn’t be kept waiting either.

She caught sight of the large clock just outside the park, adjacent to the train station and compared its time to her watch and then headed in that direction. The platform stood on the highest piece of ground in the village and from it Monica would have the vantage point to spot her sister and where she might be headed in the dark.

Likely, Linda had gone back to the safety of her apartment, a good ten-minute walk away. Still, Monica did not know how long she had gone without medication or whether or not some primal anger at the base of her skull had reawakened and bade her to keep running, away from the confinements of the prim commuter town and her numerous perceived enemies towards an unnamed vastness, guided only by the white line in the center of the town’s black street. That image had imprinted itself in Monica’s head for as long as she could remember, and followed her ceaselessly, accompanying her every time she herself had run away, from her family and all its sickness, from college where she couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish, from one job after the next.

Once Monica reached the platform and began to pace the smooth concrete that seemed to stretch the length of the town, the train station began to seduce her with its promise of order and expedient transit. She imagined workday mornings with a golden sunrise blinding her vision and a fresh paper cup of coffee warming her hands. A fatigue came over her then, and she edged her way backward, letting her knees buckle until she fell to one of the station’s wooden benches just as the eyebeam at the front of the oncoming train rounded a bend and snaked its way towards her silently from the distance. She looked down then and noticed the smears of blood that stained the new trench coat she had spent months paying off. She grabbed for a crumpled napkin on the ground and quickly tried to rub out the blood before it set, but with her stiff fingers in the cold night air, the chore was impossible.

Monica thought of Howard then, and his strict reliance on appearances. He expected to see her attired professionally, every day. As for Howard’s own appearance, Monica had observed he counted a bit desperately on that, too. She would notice combs and nail clippers swiftly pocketed when she entered his office, shoe shine kits kicked under the desk and touch-up hair dye stashed away in different drawers. This tiny window into his private world, typically met with eye-rolling scorn by the other secretaries, gave Monica a little jolt of excitement. It seemed to her that Howard’s intent was not merely to order time, but to vanquish it and Monica did her part to help with that as well.

At the office, she could usually get back to her desk after the lunch hour without anyone knowing where she’d been. They did it in conference rooms, in the closet where the audiovisual equipment was stored. They did it standing up. Howard would pass his hands disinterestedly down her blouse, tweaking her girlish breasts on the way to her skirt, which he hiked up with a jerk, pressing against her as he tugged her panties downward. Then, with her bare ass jammed against the raw particle board, they truly met, urgent and ready to beat the clock. Howard would thrust so intently that the change in his pocket would jingle. Monica would gaze into his half-smirking face; his dye job looked corny and outdated, but something about it stirred her when she caught a glimpse of his younger, ambitious self, and she would come almost instantly. His face would be flushed afterward, and he’d boyishly shake away a lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes. A wave of love would pass over her then, and for a moment, time no longer felt sliced to ribbons.

The train had come close enough now that Monica could hear the clang of the warning bell. She listened intently, wondering if it was only an electronic recording or did an actual clapper strike metal to create the sound that had been ringing in this area for over a century, calling all the office workers with their pressed trousers and spliced dreams towards the city and back to their proper places. She rested her forehead in her ice cold hands to ease the throbbing that had begun in her head.

Monica knew Linda wanted nothing more from these visits than to go for a slice of pizza, or to sit on a park bench with a can of soda, saying absolutely nothing or reminiscing about their childhood, when remembering random details like the words to a sitcom theme song or the name of a brand of kids’ cereal could be counted as a happy memory. But for Monica, time stopped. She was 25 years-old and she already felt that life was passing her by. No matter how hard she tried, she was never going to catch up.

The Bergen main line runs along the North East Corridor from Port Jervis, New York, to Hoboken, New Jersey, with stops along the way in Ridgewood and Radburn Station. Monica watched the conductor work his way towards her down the aisle of the 6:17. He steadied himself against the sway of the train. He deftly folded bills and handed out receipts, squirting out change from the stainless steel tubes attached to his belt with an efficient flick of his thumb.

Monica remembered her gift to Howard and pulled the statuette out to examine it. On closer inspection, Mickey didn’t look so good. Near his butt, flecks of red paint had loosened from his short pants revealing the crude, dirty porcelain underneath. This was Mickey soon after his Steamboat Willie days, when he was Disney’s first rising star, and he was old. He had always graced the open shelf above her grandmother’s stove, between the ceramic black mammy holding toothpicks in her apron and a yellow cylinder of Red Cross salt. Mickey had endured his share of greasy steam and kitchen grime, bi-annual sponge baths in vinegar solutions and blasts of blistering suburban sunshine. But, disentangled from that unexceptional showplace, he would rise again to a position of merit on the fake walnut display cabinet in Howard’s Eighth Avenue office. Howard had many Disney items from the fifties and sixties, but nothing this antique. He would be impressed.

The conductor paused suddenly to look into Monica’s face. Her hand flew up instinctively to cover her nose as she handed him her money. He said nothing and tucked a red marker into the plastic handle on top of the seat in front of her, indicating that her stop was the last one.

She patted her nose gingerly, seeking out the reflective surface of the window to study the damage. Crescent-shaped bruises formed along the sides of her nose and blood had dried around the curves of her nostrils, but her appearance did not bother her. She looked through her image and was mesmerized by what was outside the window instead. She no longer saw her sister racing in the street in confusion or her grandmother’s fury as she hobbled about in the small, prescribed world she had created for herself and them. She saw the alternating pattern of wooden fences and chain-linked that shielded the darkened backsides of houses as the train sped past. Howard would be getting into his car service just about now. Later on, after they had connected, he would catch a cab to Newark and board a plane that rose up and away from this familiar landscape, and the well-worn paths cut by Monica and her family for the past one hundred years would be mere scratches in the dirt.

Monica’s breath shortened and her heartbeat sped up with heightened anticipation when she finally reached the doorway of the train and let the conductor guide her down the narrow steps. It made her heart sink that much lower when Howard wasn’t on the platform to greet her. She looked all around her. Had he stepped up even a minute or two later, she may have revived somewhat, but this was not the case. The fragile moment had been squashed from one of blissful expectation and hope to the more commonplace experience of restless waiting and bottomless disappointment – the kind train stations kept in ample supply like the bitter coffee and stale, shrink-wrapped pastry sold at the newsstands.

Monica stepped away from the gate. She assumed the posture of the neglected, standing beneath the departure board as the flapping number cards shuffled themselves into a fresh schedule, passing her eyes listlessly over the circus posters and bank ads, not reading them, watching the purposeful and the well-met find their way out.

After ten minutes, she pulled out her phone from her coat pocket and dialed him, not at the office, or his cell phone, but at his family home somewhere deep in the woody places of New Jersey where Washington had slept, but she had never been. His town wasn’t even on the same train line.

“I thought I told you not to call me here,” Howard whispered.

“What about that bite to eat?” demanded Monica. In the background, she heard the clinking of glasses and silverware, the murmuring of a small group of people. It sounded leisurely and lingering and exclusive like a weekend party perhaps, conceived on the tennis courts and thrown together at the last minute.

“Not likely,” Howard said loudly into the phone and then whispered, “Are you crazy?”

“I got here on time!” shouted Monica. She was NOT the crazy one.

There was a silence at the end of the line as if he were walking to a private corner of the house to talk to her.

“Look honey,” he said. “Don’t force it.”

When he spoke to her like this it made Monica think of her grandmother and things being neatly folded and put away.

“We’ve got a good thing going,” he said. “Don’t you think?”

It sounded like an admission of something. Monica wasn’t sure. “I have something I wanted to give you,” she blurted.

“Oh,” he whispered. “Now what’s that?”

“It’s important,” she said, sensing she had already lost ground she would never regain.

“Ok, lay it on me,” he said, directly.

Monica sighed and took a deep breath. She pulled the statuette from her pocket and looked down at it, suddenly appalled. Old Mickey smiled up at her, guileless and dumb. Its weightlessness in the palm of her hand frightened her. She let it drop as if she had found a bug. She realized she was not as skilled a juggler as she would have liked. She was spinning plates on top of narrow sticks, but slowly the plates were breaking one by one. Her past was crumbling before her eyes. Her future was not yet clear.

“I thought I could suck your cock.” she whispered into the phone.

“You are sweet,” he said. “But, I’ll see you when I get back.”

“Look,” said Howard, loudly. “I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m not going to need those documents after all. They don’t care about the original signature. For now, you can email me a PDF. OK?  Enjoy the rest of your weekend for a change.” He hung up.

Monica put the phone back into her pocket. She looked down at the statuette. It had bounced off her shoe and rolled onto its back where it laid at her feet, its gloved hand waving jauntily like a champ, just as it had been for decades, even before she was born. She bent down to pick it up.

At that second, she thought of something that would have made Linda laugh. When they were little and their grandmother helped take care of them while their mother worked, she would instruct the girls to stay in their beds in the morning after they woke up, and to pull the sheets up over their heads, and to tug the blankets on top of themselves. Then, if they would carefully creep out of the bed the blankets would be in place and the bed already made as if they hadn’t even slept in it. All they had to do was pat the pillow gently and smooth the bedspread. On seeing this, their mother would roll her eyes and yank Linda out from under the covers. “Get ready for school!” she would yell, tearing out of the house and dropping her coffee cup wherever it was most likely to leave an ugly wet circle on the finish of one of their grandmother’s polished pieces of furniture.

Monica still pictured her grandmother lying all alone in her bedroom with the bedding up over her head. When Monica was small, she thought that if they found their grandmother had died in bed, they wouldn’t need to pull a sheet up over her eyes, the way they did to dead people on T.V. This is what she wanted to share with Linda to make her laugh, but then again, she thought, maybe it wouldn’t.

A cold rain had begun to hit the sidewalk outside the old Lackawanna station. Monica pulled a train schedule from her purse and consulted the paper trifold that neatly plotted the commuter trains’ arrivals and departures all week long, although by now she had it memorized. In a few minutes, she would call Linda. If she didn’t answer her phone, she would take the train back and scout her usual haunts: the McDonalds, the Dunkin’ Donuts, anyplace with a dollar menu. For now, however, her nose had begun to throb again and she needed to take care of it. She knew the clerk at the 7-11 would give her a cup of ice without making her buy anything, and so that’s where she headed after crossing the street.

 

 

About the Author
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Maggie lives in Manhattan and devotes her time to writing fiction according to the level of independence her kids have obtained. Once they are both able to ride the NYC subway alone, she anticipates completing a lot more.